I made the case against Prop 218—and for repealing it – a few weeks ago in this space. My friend Jon Coupal wrote forcefully against my argument and for Prop 218.

We’re not going to agree on Prop 218. But there is one point in his rebuttal I want to respond to. It has to do with the impacts of Prop 218 on local politics and local government.

My argument was, in my original piece, that Prop 218 – and other measures like it, including Prop 13– actually creates more spending locally because it takes away the power of local officials to tax. This may seem like a paradox. It isn’t. I wrote:

But the real problem with 218 is that it takes power away from local elected officials in a dangerous way – by making them spenders, and preventing them from being taxers. The problem with that is that, when local officials don’t have to raise funds to pay for services, they have a tendency to overspend – and then point the finger at the state or others when money runs short. It’s this dynamic that has ballooned pension spending – local officials can give big pensions to cops, but don’t have the power to raise taxes to pay for those pensions

Coupal responds by accusing me of living in a Disneyland of democratic theory – and not acknowledging the bitter reality of the powerful public employee unions force that are such a force for irresponsible spending (especially when it can be disguised as pension and benefits for members – bills that don’t come due until well into the future).

He writes:

California politics is a bare knuckles contest where, by far, the largest and most powerful competitors are the government employee unions.  Because of their ability to turn out members to vote for the union label and their ability to use mandatory union dues for any political purpose, they are able to elect a majority to the Legislature, a majority that owes them allegiance.  At the local level, they are just as influential, controlling a majority of votes on many city councils.

Coupal writes that the problem I identify can be fixed instead by spending limits, presumably as companions to tax limits.

If officials are going to provide benefits to government employees that are unsustainable, wouldn’t it make more sense to limit spending rather than having an open season on taxpayers who are already among the most taxed in all 50 states?

There are two problems with Coupal’s argument. First, the two pieces don’t connect. Such spending limits are politically impossible precisely because of the power of the public employee unions. Those unions will always try to use their power to get the local governments they effectively elect to spend more.

But what he’s missing – and what so many conservatives are missing – is even more fundamental. The measures they passed and protect today – Prop 13 and Prop 218 among them – are in fact responsible for the power of those public employee unions.

That bears repeating. Prop 218 has empowered public employee unions. If you want to have any hope of reducing government union power – and we need to reduce that power to make our communities and schools better — you need to repeal Prop 218 and Prop 13 and the host of other measures that reduce the power of local elected officials.

Before California went down the path to Prop 13 and 218 and their ilk, local officials could tax – and the state’s local spending was not nearly as high compared to other states as now. The difference—greater distribution of power in communities. Business interests and taxpayer interests were more engaged at the local level because local officials could hurt them – by raising taxes. Business people ran for office and served in office much more often.

Once the power of local taxation was curbed, the business and taxpayer interest retreated. Spending interests – the public employees and developers – filled the void. And the unions came to own many local governments.

Let me be plain: By protecting Prop 13 and Prop 218, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. and other like-minded groups are protecting the power of public employees they rail against. For all their howling at those of us who want to restore local democracy, they really need to look at a mirror and realize that they’ve made a choice. They’ve chosen their pet tax limits over democracy, accountability, and the crucial conservative value of decentralized power.

California needs them to awaken to the consequences of their choice – and to make a different one.