In summary

There are other bold proposals that can lay the foundation for a just recovery while generating billions for our schools and local services.

By Guillermo Mayer

Guillermo Mayer is the president and CEO of Public Advocates Inc., a nonprofit civil rights law firm and a member of the California Green New Deal Coalition, gmayer@publicadvocates.org

Sara Nelson, Special to CalMatters

Sara Nelson is executive director and co-founder of the Romero Institute, a nonprofit law and public policy center and a member of the California Green New Deal Coalition, sara.nelson@romeroinstitute.org.

Californians faced the largest wildfires in our history this fall, and we desperately needed bold action to stabilize our communities, schools and climate. But corporate special interests spent nearly $75 million to mislead voters into protecting their profits by opposing Proposition 15. The measure ultimately failed with a 51.7% no vote.

The result is billions of dollars of new revenue lost to local budgets and school districts. This comes on top of the decades of austerity budgets, which have meant deep cuts to public health services, fire departments and the social safety net. Meanwhile big businesses have seen profits and executive pay skyrocket. 

This fall, as short-staffed fire crews struggled to contain the blazes set by lightning storms and fueled by climate change, 4.1 million acres burned and 10,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed while less than 25% of adults in fire-prone counties were receiving county emergency alerts. That’s where Prop. 15 would come in. The initiative would have brought an estimated $12 billion a year into our cash-strapped cities, counties and schools by closing a loophole that allows California’s richest corporations to pay lower property tax rates than homeowners. 

If approved, Prop. 15 would have been part of the financial groundwork we need for a Green New Deal in California – a comprehensive, common-sense plan to rebuild the Golden State with a just and sustainable economy. Making sure the wealthiest corporations and individuals pay their fair share is the foundation for a thriving public sector that can meet the needs of our communities and protect us from the crises we face.

Why don’t we have enough cash to adequately deal with COVID-19, provide relief to laid-off workers, and fight forest fires and other effects of climate change?

Because large corporations have avoided paying their fair share for decades and made 2020 a record-breaking year for campaign spending to protect that advantage at the expense of Californian families. 

For Prop. 15, big business special interest groups invested $72 million in misleading and anxiety-inducing attack advertisements. By making baseless claims that this proposition would hurt homeowners, small businesses and farmers – all of which Prop. 15 explicitly exempted – lobbyists ensured that their clients’ profits would keep going to shareholder payouts and bloated executive bonuses instead of helping keep our schools and communities afloat.

To see what is possible when elections aren’t buried under an avalanche of big business lobbying money we can look to our neighbors in Arizona and Oregon, where voters passed school-funding ballot measures raising income taxes on high earners this November. These measures, which will collectively inject more than a billion dollars every year into public schools, will ease the burden on low-income and marginalized families while better preparing their leaders of tomorrow for the unique challenges of the 21st century.  

Progressive tax policies like these can pass right here in California – when political spending from big business is low. Through a measure with no reported opposition spending, San Francisco voters approved raising taxes for businesses that pay their executives more than 100 times their average worker.

Prop. 15 isn’t California’s last opportunity to restore our social contract. With other bold, visionary proposals like a wealth tax, creation of a public bank like North Dakota’s and tax increases for millionaires coming back to the Legislature next year, we can still lay the foundation for a just recovery and California Green New Deal while generating billions for our schools, firefighters and local services. 

If you believe a better future is possible and that special interest groups shouldn’t be able to buy elections, call, email or write your state representatives and tell them to support crucial proposals like these that will make our state healthier and safer in the next legislative session – even in the face of massive corporate lobbying.

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