On several occasions I’ve made the case that the Legislature
might propose a ballot measure to increase taxes without needing a two-thirds
vote to place the matter on the ballot. The tool is a little-known and rarely-used constitutional provision
allowing the Legislature to amend an existing initiative statute by a
subsequent statute placed on the ballot for voter approval. These statutes can
reach the ballot after approval by a simple majority vote of the Legislature
and the Governor’s signature.
While some experts have dismissed this notion, it is
apparently gaining some initial credibility where it counts, in the
Legislature. A freshman Democrat from Alameda County, Assemblyman Bob
Wieckowski, has introduced legislation to resurrect the California
inheritance or estate tax, which was abolished by voter initiative in 1982. His proposal would use
the majority vote maneuver to place the new estate tax on the next statewide
ballot for voter approval. Legislative Counsel has validated this approach.
Assm. Wieckowski has proposed this new tax as a
revenue offset to his proposal, in the same bill, to exempt manufacturing
equipment from the sales and use tax. If this tactic seems familiar, it should.
Prior Legislatures attempted to offset tax increases with similar-sized tax
cuts to avoid the two-thirds vote requirement for raising taxes. But with Proposition
26 definitively outlawing this approach, the next-best thing would
be to find a relevant ballot measure that could be amended to increase taxes,
place it on the next ballot with a majority vote, and hope for the best.
To be sure,
a single bill, not related to the budget, introduced by a freshman Assemblyman,
which must in any event go to the people for a vote is hardly evidence of the
breakdown of constitutional tax protections. (And I’m not suggesting that
Assm. Wieckowski’s proposal is insincere.) But we may be seeing the first
stirrings of a new strategic direction in tax policy.