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Proposition 38 tries to turn a tax liability into an asset

October 25, 2012|By Jon Healey
  • A screengrab from a new commercial for Proposition 38, which would raise state income taxes to increase funding for schools and early childhood programs.
A screengrab from a new commercial for Proposition 38, which would raise… (YouTube.com and Defend…)

Backers of Proposition 38 caught considerable heat from Gov. Jerry Brown and other Democrats for airing a commercial earlier this month that attacked Brown's rival tax initiative, Proposition 30. Now the pro-38 campaign has a pair of new ads that offer no direct criticism of Brown's measure, but instead speak to 38's main weakness in the polls, as well as its best selling point.

Proposition 38 would raise state income taxes on a sliding scale for 12 years, generating roughly $10 billion a year. For the first four years, most of that money would go directly to local schools and early childhood programs; after that, virtually all of the money would go to those entities.

The biggest problem for 38, politically, is that its income-tax increase would hit Californians with as little as $7,500 in taxable earnings. One of the new commercials, dubbed "Logic," tries to solve that problem with a little political jiu jitsu, arguing that it's a good thing to ask Californians up and down the economic ladder to kick in.

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"We all benefit from better schools," the narrator intones. "So when schools are in trouble, we all should help out." That cleverly echoes an argument by conservatives that too many people pay no federal income tax, and that even low-income households should make at least a token contribution.

The ad goes on to note that high-income Californians would be hit much harder by the tax than middle-income families. "Multi-millionaires would pay an average of 76,000 more a year," the narrator states. "Those making 25 to 50 thousand, just 54 bucks."

It closes by turning to the most popular features of the measure, saying it "guarantees" money for schools and that "every school dollars must be spent on student learning." The latter feature differentiates Proposition 38 from Brown's proposal, which doesn't place such tight controls on how schools would use the additional dollars they would receive.

The second commercial features actor Edward James Olmos bemoaning the statistics showing California 47th in the nation in spending per student. "Our schools shouldn't be 47th in anything," Olmos says. He then notes how the measure shares voters' cynicism about state government: "Proposition 38 bypasses Sacramento, and makes education a real priority -- with the funding to our local schools and the accountability from our local schools that we’ll need to improve student learning in every classroom."

There's just a faint echo here of the earlier ad's criticism of Brown's measure, which argued that the money raised by Proposition 30 could be diverted by politicians from schools to other uses. "That's why Sacramento's behind it," that ad contended.

In truth, the estimated $6 billion raised by Proposition 30 (by increasing the income tax rates paid by high-income Californians and raising the state sales tax by a quarter of a cent) would all go directly to local schools and community colleges. But the net increase in school funding would be only about $3 billion, because the measure would allow lawmakers to shift some General Fund revenue from schools to other uses.

For the record, The Times' editorial board endorsed 30 over 38, mainly because of the nearly $6 billion in budget cuts -- including $5.3 billion to schools and community colleges -- that would occur if Proposition 30 doesn't become law.

Follow Jon Healey on Twitter @jcahealey

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