Brown Surrenders on Ballot Tax Measure

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

If there was ever any doubt that Gov. Jerry Brown is mighty worried about the chances of passing his tax initiative come November, he eliminated it Wednesday when surrendered to the “something for nothing” wing of the Democratic Party.

Brown let himself get rolled by the soak-the-rich crowd, giving up his long-running mantra of “shared sacrifice” without even a fight.

That’s not the way he put it, of course. A release from his office said that the decision to merge his budget plan with the California Federation of Teachers “Millionaire Tax Initiative” is a winner for everyone.

“This united effort makes victory more likely,” Brown said in the statement.

That may be true, but you might note he didn’t say that the new and purportedly improved initiative is a fairer way of taxing Californians. That’s because it’s not.

Brown’s original measure called raising $7 billion by boosting the sales tax by 1/2 percent and increasing the tax rate on people making more than $250,000 a year.

The sales tax hits everyone and the rich pay something above that, which means everyone shares the sacrifice.

The new plan, though, cuts the sales tax hike to 1/4 percent and substantially bumps the increase for the top earners. Those earning better than $500,000 a year (that’s $1 million for joint filers), for example, would see Brown’s original 2 percent tax hike boosted to 3 percent. And for good measure, the income tax hikes now will last for seven years, even though the sales tax sunsets in five years.

That’s no problem for backers of the original millionaire’s tax, who see the state’s top earners as a money tree to be shaken. Of course they don’t put it that way, either.

“Our values and principles are clearly reflected in this new initiative,” said Joshua Pechthalt, president of the CFT. The measure “reduces the burden on working families and ensures a greater contribution from the 1 percent.”

Assembly Speaker John Perez chimed right in with the populist line.

“This responsible agreement will ask less of those who were hit hardest in the recession while ensuring that those who have profited the most contribute a larger share,” he said.

Of course, they already were contributing a larger share under Brown’s initiative, only apparently not a larger enough share.

For the Democrats in the Legislature, the new initiative, which will raise $2 billion more than Brown’s plan, is yet another way to avoid hard, unpopular choices. Democrats already have turned down the governor’s call for cuts to welfare and college scholarships and have been dragging their feet about many other of the governor’s proposed budget reductions.

While Brown called for balancing the budget with a mix of budget cuts and temporary taxes that would involve decisions most Democratic legislators don’t want to make. They’d rather ignore the problem and hope that a bigger tax increase will make it go away.

But for Brown, his decision to let the progressives dictate the ballot terms is likely all about the numbers. A Public Policy Institute of California poll released last week found that 52 percent supported the governor’s original tax initiative, way down from the 68 percent backing in January. That’s a dangerously narrow margin for the “yes” side of any ballot measure, especially when the proposed 2012-13 budget calls for slashing $5.4 million from education and public safety if the initiative doesn’t pass.

By combining his efforts with the CFT initiative, Brown clears a competing tax measure from the November ballot and makes it easier to sell a tax hike to voters making less than $250,000, You’ll never notice it, the supporters can argue, since it’s really aimed at all those rich guys, not you.

That’s not exactly a thoughtful effort to sell the issue on its merits.

When Brown ran for governor in 2010 after a 28-year hiatus, he promised to be a different type of politician, a seasoned, unambitious veteran willing to speak hard truths, tell voters what they didn’t want to hear and force legislators to deal with the reality of California’s fiscal problems.

But with the deal he signed onto Wednesday, he became just another Democrat.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

 

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