Is Arnold Schwarzenegger the most conservative, anti-tax governor in the history of California?

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Those who followed the recent California Forward panel, and accompanying LA Times pieces, on how four previous governors — Earl Warren, Pat Brown, Ronald Reagan and Pete Wilson — resolved budget difficulties might have reached that conclusion. A different author described how each governor had had the courage to raise revenues to support a growing state.

The tax numbers on Reagan, offered by biographer Lou Cannon, are jarring in light of today’s debate. Please tell the Republican kids, if there are any Republican kids anymore. Taxes on corporations went from 5.5 to 9 percent; the tax on banks from 9.5 percent to 13 percent, and the highest rate on personal come tax jumped from 7 percent to 11 percent.

If Reagan rose from the dead and tried that today, Republican lawmakers would shun him, and every anti-tax group in the state would be racing to the attorney general’s office with recall papers.
What about other governors? Deukmejian held the line, sort of. He supported a temporary sales tax increase that was repealed — because of a surging economy — before it ever had to go into effect. Gray Davis cut taxes at first, but then raised the dreaded vehicle license fee, or "car tax."

Schwarzenegger has been painted as a sellout by the right on fiscal issues, even though he hasn’t raised tax rates. Yes, there were fees in his health care proposal–but he never got that legislation passed. I’d argue that the massive borrowing he convinced voters to support — particularly the deficit bonds in 2004 — are a massive tax increase in disguise. But semantically, they weren’t taxes. And conservatives supported those measures.

The governor could make a claim, on the tax issue, to be the most conservative governor in history. Schwarzenegger would be on safe ground saying that. At least, no one is likely to contest him. The only governor of recent vintage who could claim a more conservative record on taxes won’t be boasting about it.

His name is Jerry Brown. Remember the era of limits? (I barely do, but I’ve read about it). Well, he was governor when Prop 13 was passed. He opposed it, and backed a counter-proposal to reduce property taxes. But when Prop 13 won, Brown immediately embraced it.

The conservative economist Art Laffer told me in an interview last fall in Nashville — where he’s located in part because he thinks California taxes are too high — that Jerry Brown has been the best governor on taxes and economics in recent California history. Perhaps California Forward should publish something on Jerry Brown’s example.

In case the next governor of California is interested.

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