There is a cyclical quality to California’s perennial debate over taxation, one most evident in the tax-related ballot measures placed before voters.
Initiatives to raise taxes, or make them easier to raise, will appear in one election cycle, but just two years later, voters may be asked to cut taxes, or at least make increases more difficult.
In 2010, for instance, voters endorsed a business-backed proposal that turned many levies previously classified as fees, which were easy to impose, into taxes that would require higher legislative votes.
Just two years later, however, voters approved Gov. Jerry Brown’s measure for a multibillion-dollar income and sales tax increase to close the state’s chronic budget deficit. It also changed how multistate corporations are taxed, making them pay more.
Brown’s 2012 tax hike was billed as temporary. But in 2016, a coalition headed by public-employee unions pushed a ballot measure to extend the taxes on high-income Californians by 12 additional years, and two-thirds of voters approved it.
Those same 2016 voters also raised California’s cigarette taxes.
It’s now 2018, and the cycle continues.
The same liberal interests, particularly unions, that successfully pushed tax increases in 2012 and 2016 hoped to extend their winning streak this year by changing Proposition 13, California’s iconic 1978 limit on property taxes. They sought to remove tax limits on commercial property and thus raise several billion more dollars a year, primarily for local governments.
However, after launching a signature drive, the sponsors abruptly shifted from the 2018 ballot to 2020.
Therefore, true to form, this year’s ballot will likely feature two anti-tax measures. One, sponsored by business interests, would make the enactment of local taxes, such as those on retail sales and soft drinks, more difficult. Meanwhile, the state’s Republican Party wants voters to repeal increases in fuel taxes and auto fees that Brown and the Legislature imposed last year.
Local governments, especially cities, have been flooding recent ballots with tax increases, usually fractional hikes in sales taxes but also new levies on soft drinks that contain sugar and other high-calorie sweeteners.
Local taxes for general purposes need only simple majority approval by voters, while those for specific purposes require two-thirds votes. The pending measure would essentially require all new local taxes to be for specific purposes and require two-thirds votes.
It’s a response, in part, to the spate of soft-drink taxes, and big soda makers are putting up much of the money for a petition drive to qualify the measure. It also responds to a state Supreme Court decision last year implying that local specific-purpose taxes proposed by initiative need not comply with the two-thirds vote requirement.
If enacted, the measure could have a particularly heavy, and negative, effect on local sales taxes that many cities are seeking to offset their steeply rising pension costs, although that reason is only rarely mentioned.
So why has this cycle of pro- and anti-tax measures evolved? Simply put, it’s because voter turnout in presidential-election years such as 2012 and 2016 is much higher than in what are called “off years,” such as 2010 and 2018.
Higher turnout tends to favor liberal causes, while lower turnout means a somewhat more conservative electorate more inclined to lower or limit taxes. That’s why, for instance, those seeking to alter Proposition 13 would have a better shot at winning in 2020 than they would have had this year.