IN MY OPINION (Column)
Prop. 56: An Assault on Proposition 13
(The writer is an attorney and president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association—California’s largest taxpayer organization with offices in Los Angeles and Sacramento.)
As the holidays approach and we prepare for the gift giving season, it is easy to overlook Proposition 56, a “present” for taxpayers that public employee unions have placed on the March 2004 ballot.
Unfortunately, Proposition 56, benignly titled the “Budget Accountability Act,” is like the gift the Greeks left outside the walls of Troy. It contains some very nasty surprises.
Proposition 56’s sponsors—California’s largest public employee unions—are seeking to lower the vote needed to pass a state budget and to reduce Proposition 13’s requirement of a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to increase taxes.
Because the promoters know that a straightforward effort to make it easier to increase taxes would be rejected by wary voters, they have wrapped their mischief in attractive packaging. To convince voters to say yes, backers will be touting Proposition 56’s provision to dock lawmakers pay for failure to pass a budget by the constitutionally mandated deadline, and the measure’s requirement that the state establish a rainy day fund. Then there is the title, “Budget Accountability Act,” with which they hope to go forward to victory—after all is anyone opposed to government accountability?
Unfortunately, it is all a ruse and the title of this measure is pure fraud. If these statements were made in commercial advertising the district attorney would be filing charges. Proposition 56 should properly be called the “Blank Check Initiative” because it would give lawmakers the ability to take whatever they want from taxpayers. And because public employee unions are playing an increasingly powerful role in the election of our representatives, public employees, who are already the highest paid in the nation, expect to benefit handsomely.
Proposition 56 is a direct attack on Proposition 13. It would replace Proposition 13’s mandate that new or increased state taxes be passed with a two-thirds vote, with an easily attainable 55% vote.
During last summer’s budget debate, lawmakers introduced measures that, combined, would have raised taxes at least $60 billion. If Proposition 56 had been law, many of these bills would have passed and Californians would now be paying billions of dollars in new taxes.
Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann designed Proposition 13 to be more than property tax relief. It was intended to be a complete package of taxpayer protections. They saw no benefit to reducing a property owner’s taxes if government could turn around and take as much or more out of the taxpayer’s other pocket. To prevent this they required a public vote on most local taxes and a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to increase state taxes.
The Proposition 13 system has made it more difficult, but not impossible to raise taxes. Indeed, the largest tax increase in California history passed with the higher threshold as recently as 1991. Given the current makeup of the Legislature, lowering the vote requirement to 55% would assure that just about every tax increase proposal would pass. Lawmakers would no longer need bipartisan consensus or strong justification.
Proposition 56 would also eliminate the two-thirds approval required to pass a state budget. While critics have blamed this requirement for the late budgets of recent years, it has been law for 70 years and has worked well to make sure that all perspectives on the state budget are considered.
Although some have portrayed this as a Democrats—who hold a majority in the Legislature—verses Republicans issue, opposition to reducing the two-thirds vote to pass a budget is not limited to the minority party. Democratic Assemblyman Joseph Canciamilla has said that the current system encourages compromises that benefit the public.
If informed voters think Proposition 56 sounds too radical to pass, they should think again. The deceptive approach taken by promoters of Proposition 56 has been successful in the recent past.
In 2000, backers of Proposition 39 were successful in eliminating the two-thirds vote to raise property taxes to pay for school bonds. Tens of millions of dollars in television advertising for Proposition 39 focused exclusively on its dubious accountability provisions and did not mention how lowering the voter threshold to 55% would guarantee that almost all school bonds would pass regardless of merit.
So voters took in the Trojan Horse of Proposition 39 and all the tax increases it contained. In the three years since the two-thirds vote was reduced local property owners have been hit with over $20 billion in new obligations.
If voters are not careful, in March, history will repeat itself.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company