Isn’t It About Another Time for Another Useless Tax Commission?

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)

Yes, climate change is messing with the California weather. But the California budget climate, and its cycles, never really changes.

Now that people outside government are talking about taxes – tax cuts and tax hikes and tax reforms – it won’t be long before the state’s leaders respond with a tried-and-true dodge.

They’ll appoint a tax commission.

As Jeff Cummins notes in his smart new book, Boom and Bust: the Politics of the California Budget, tax commissions are a very old California tradition. And if you see the legislature and/or Gov. Brown push for a commission soon, be reassured. A commission is right on time.

Indeed, there is something of a six-year cycle of tax commissions that don’t produce much. The last such commission came back in 2009. The tax commission before that, while authorized in 2000, released its report in late 2003. Heck, if you include the 1996 constitutional revision commission (which had interest in budget and tax questions), the six-year cycle runs back a generation.

Here’s another thing that goes back a generation, as Cummins notes in his book. No major tax reform has been passed in American states since 1990.

Here in California, I expect we’ll see talk, at least, of another tax commission later this year, as ballot initiative proposals on taxes start to flow like water once did in California rivers. Already, Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association is pushing tax cuts, and health groups and the disease lobbies are again considering a tax. State leaders, spooked at having to navigate the politics of so many proposals, will need a response, and a weapon of their own in the tax fight. A commission could provide one. The outcome is a virtual certainty: It would produce worthy ideas, and none of those ideas would be enacted.

But let’s hope that this time, the sort of worthies who wasted their time on previous commissions will wise up and refuse to do another commission. It’s well past time to design big changes to the tax system. The goal should be changes that raise more revenues, reduce rates, and maintain progressivity of the system.

A commission won’t help do any of these things.

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