Conventional wisdom says that Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax initiative is doomed. Conventional wisdom says that that the other tax raising initiatives will hurt his measure. Conventional wisdom says that early polling showing support for the Brown initiative is illusory, as voters turn against tax increases late in campaigns.
But these are strange times. Could conventional wisdom be wrong?
Maybe so. The politics of the Brown initiative look pretty good. (The policy is a different story, since this initiative combines bad budget policy – creating special accounts that can’t be touched by the legislature – with only temporary revenues – the tax increases sunset after five years.)
Here are five reasons why things could be different this time.
- The sales tax hike still leaves the sales tax lower than it had been. This is a surprisingly strong argument, I’m told, with voters. Schwarzenegger’s temporary one-cent sales tax increase expired earlier this year; this initiative restores only half of it. Net: voters are ahead of where they are.
- The income tax targets very few people – individuals at $250,000 and families at $500,000. If Brown and his team have a disciplined campaign that gets that message out – this doesn’t affect you – it has a very good chance.
- Triggers and cuts are producing real pain. The new PPIC poll shows that Californians are clearly seeing the impact of state budget cuts in their local communities. The trigger cuts, if fully pulled, could deepen that impact by forcing schools to close early this year. The triggers, and the school closures, are terrible policy, but they should have a strong effect.
- The tax increases are temporary. Yes, this is problematic policy – if Brown wants to fix the structural deficit, why not go for the permanent increase? – that’s helpful politically.
- The opposition is weak. The state Republican party is a mess. Major business interests may be supporting Brown’s initiative. Taxpayer groups are in a stronger position, but have had trouble beating back the early momentum and favorable news coverage of the initiative.
Will it be enough to scream “no taxes, no taxes” this time? Maybe. But with the budget problem so persistent and stark, opponents would be wise to be more thoughtful in their criticisms and to offer detailed alternatives to the plan. The spending limit initiative just filed is an attempt to offer an alternative – an attempt that, like Brown’s initiative, has political merit but creates more policy and budget problems.