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Democrats, stop before you tax again!

You now have a supermajority in the Legislature, but that doesn't mean you should go crazy.

November 18, 2012
  • California Democrats have captured two-thirds of both the Assembly and the state Senate.
California Democrats have captured two-thirds of both the Assembly and… (Robert Greene / Los Angeles…)

It's like Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier in the Glamorous Glennis. Or at least Felix Baumgartner, the Austrian sky diver who just last month went supersonic without benefit of a plane, free-falling into the record books.

California Democrats have captured two-thirds of both the Assembly and the state Senate, and it could be that even they didn't see it coming. After all, it has been just a blip in political time since they saw their governor booted from office and replaced by a politically inexperienced Republican movie star. Just half a blip since they lost their power as majority party to draw legislative district lines. Just seconds, it seems, since the Legislature they have led for decades scraped the bottom of public approval ratings. They must have taken a serious look at themselves lately, taken stock, changed their thinking, improved their game, straightened themselves out, to get the public to embrace them so completely. It couldn't possibly be that they only look good when placed side by side with Republicans. Could it?

Two thirds! If Californians had seen this coming, they wouldn't have needed that 2010 ballot measure — what was it, Proposition 25? — that eliminated the crazy constitutional requirement for a two-thirds supermajority to adopt a budget. They wouldn't have needed to agonize about the continuing two-thirds supermajority requirement to raise a tax. They wouldn't have needed those irksome conversations with Republicans who are always saying "no, no, no."

Seriously, California has been stuck in deadlock and gridlock for a generation, bound up in constitutional requirements imposed by voters who were so afraid of the state moving in the wrong direction that

the state became unable to move at all. Supermajority vote requirements in the Legislature vested enormous and disproportionate power in the Republican minority, who responded foolishly, but understandably, by insisting on program cuts that often seemed based more on ideology than fiscal prudence. Democrats in turn replied craftily with gimmicks and subterfuge to make it look like they were agreeing to cuts when, in fact, they were not. Californians ended up disgusted with their Legislature but could not hold any particular lawmaker accountable for anything — with the exception of those few Republicans who broke ranks, agreed to rational budget reforms and, for their trouble, found themselves shunned by their colleagues and booted from office.

So breaking the two-thirds barrier will finally make the Democrats accountable. They can no longer blame intransigent Republicans for blocking them. They can do almost anything. They can be Yeager or Baumgartner. The sky's the limit. Raise a tax? Yes, certainly. They have the votes to do it. Place a constitutional amendment on the ballot? Yes. Pass a veto-proof bill? Absolutely. What point would there be in Gov. Jerry Brown vetoing a bill that passed by a two-thirds vote in each house if he knows that the same lawmakers would simply vote to override his veto?

Brown persuaded voters to raise income taxes on top earners and sales taxes on everyone to balance his budget, but his own party's lawmakers have outflanked him. Two thirds! As it turns out, Democrats don't even need those Proposition 30 tax increases approved just this month by voters — because voters on the same day awarded Democrats their supermajority. They can raise taxes all on their own, and the governor can't even veto them. They can raise the taxes that need to be raised. Like, say, the vehicle license fee.

Ah, the car tax. The one that got us all into this mess in the first place. In the late 1990s, Gov. Pete Wilson led an effort to reduce the car tax from the 2% level it had held since it replaced a local property tax on cars in the 1930s. It was supposed to return to 2% in the event of fiscal emergency. Gov. Gray Davis faced a fiscal emergency and raised the car tax back to 2%. Californians were outraged and listened to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who ran a recall campaign based primarily on his promise to drive down the car tax. He was true to his word — he knocked it back down to 0.65% and blew a hole in the budget that was never filled, that threatened schools, defunded cities and counties, contributed to the need for prison realignment and sped up California's tailspin.

Now that voters have filled the hole with Proposition 30 and Democrats have won a supermajority, state Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) has taken the opportunity to propose a ballot measure to raise the car tax again. Was Lieu merely the first Democrat out of the gate, and is his tax proposal just the first of many?

Restoring the car tax makes a lot of sense, or at least it did before we passed Proposition 30 in large part because lawmakers couldn't get the car tax done. Now we're going to have both? And instead of paying for local government, now the car tax would pay for road construction? Without any discussion of priorities?

Shouldn't we be restoring funding that used to go to local government? Shouldn't we restore cuts made to the courts, to schools, to child and senior safety net programs? Shouldn't we remember that Californians rejected a car tax increase (Proposition 21) to pay for parks just two years ago, or that after it was rejected, millions of dollars in unspent funds were "found" in the California Department of Parks and Recreation? Shouldn't we forget about any new taxes for a year or two and see how responsibly Democrats use the revenue, and the power, they were just given?

Democrats, please. Slow down. Exercise some restraint. Remember, you didn't earn your supermajority. You free-fell into it, without the years of planning and training that Baumgartner gave his record-breaking feat. You're no Felix Baumgartner. You're more like Icarus, happy, heedless, full of yourselves. Please don't crash, lest you take California down with you.

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