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Logic Spins Out on Car Tax

August 13, 2003

Politicians often chide their foes by saying they "can't have it both ways." It's a way of accusing them of talking out of both sides of their mouths, or trying to have their cake and eat it too. But nothing slows down the spin machines. Take the car tax, for instance.

Democrats were able to triple the vehicle license fee, or car tax, this summer without a vote, as a key to papering over a huge shortfall and passing a budget. The foes of Gov. Gray Davis have since turned the increase into a potent weapon in the drive to recall him. The higher bills are beginning to hit motorists' mailboxes right now, and Republicans are fanning the fires.

Suddenly, Democrats in the Legislature want to repeal the car tax hike. They would instead raise cigarette taxes and modestly boost state income taxes on the wealthy. Both ideas were part of Davis' original budget proposal, and they're what the Legislature should have enacted. That high ground is not what Democrats are taking. They claim they are merely "swapping" one tax for another; that allows them to do it without going back to get the mandatory two-thirds vote for budget issues.

This provided Republicans with a real "gotcha" moment. Democrats have suddenly admitted the car tax is a tax and not a fee by equating it to the income and cigarette taxes. Thus, they violated the law earlier by raising the car tax by administrative action.

It's an "abuse of power," said Assemblyman John Campbell (R-Irvine). That's what politicians say when they are in the minority. The Republicans also fail to mention that it was their opposition to any tax increase, no matter what cuts were made, that led to this year's long budget deadlock. Democrats enjoy hefty majorities in both houses, but not quite the two-thirds needed to pass a budget without a few GOP supporters.

The vehicle fee was always a special case. In the late 1990s, Gov. Pete Wilson and Republican lawmakers got Democrats to go along with a two-thirds cut in the vehicle license fee. Democrats did so on the condition that the fee automatically would rise back to its former level if the state ran out of money. That's what happened this summer. Some Republicans cried foul and went to court to stop the increase -- or restoration, depending on your viewpoint. At the same time, GOP leaders cut a deal to pass a budget that relied upon the new car tax revenue.

Here's what should happen: The Legislature, by two-thirds vote, returns the car tax to its lower level and boosts the income and cigarette taxes to make up for the lost revenue. That won't occur, since genuine leadership is, with a few exceptions, absent from the Legislature.

Public distaste for politicians in general is being played out in the recall vote against Davis. But lawmakers who think voters aren't paying attention to the Legislature may soon enough reap the whirlwind themselves.

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