Ronald Reagan once said, “Government’s view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it.” With a record $130 billion budget, we know that California state legislators are adept at all three practices, but none more so than taxes.
Democrats in Sacramento spent 2017 jamming three separate tax and fuel-cost hikes into law. They renewed the cap-and-trade program, continuing a multi-billion-dollar increase in fuel costs that brings in state revenue to fund high-speed rail. They invented a new tax on recorded documents that is supposed to fund affordable housing. And of course the SB 1 gas and car tax increase was said to be needed to fund road repair, even though billions of dollars have been diverted away from maintenance over the last decade. In the midst of an $8 billion surplus, Sacramento was steadily increasing taxes.
But fortunately, 2018 hasn’t been as dreadful for taxpayers as 2017. Here’s a sample of the proposals that, for now, have failed to pass:
Senate Bill 794 would impose a new three percent tax on fireworks at the point of sale. The abuse of illegal fireworks is a matter of statewide concern, and as such, it is totally appropriate to spend existing General Fund revenues on enforcement and safety. Instead, by taxing the sale of fireworks, Sacramento would be hurting all the non-profit organizations that raise a sizable share of their annual revenue from firework stands.
Assembly Bill 2497 would impose an as-yet-undefined tax on guns and ammunition to fund school resource counselors and police officers.
AB 2303 and AB 2560 would create a new tax of up to ten percent on small business vendors who contract out either with private prisons or with the California Department of Corrections.
Senate Bill 623 would establish a precedent-setting tax on residential water use. For now, local water agencies have joined with taxpayer advocates to vigorously fight this levy.
Assembly Bill 2486 would impose a $100 million tax on opioid manufacturers and distributors to fund prevention and treatment programs. Ultimately, this tax will be passed onto consumers, especially to patients who use opioids appropriately to manage pain. As an issue of statewide concern as well as a legitimate public health issue, opioid treatment should also be financed out of the General Fund.
Senate Bill 993 is the latest version of a proposal to extend the sales tax to services, generating $100 billion in new tax revenue that would be lifted from the wallets of consumers. And Senate Bill 562 would impose an even larger tax, over $200 billion dollars, to establish a single-payer health insurance program that would effectively make private health insurance illegal in California.
Political considerations are part of the reason that the proposals listed above have been thwarted thus far. Democrats no longer have a two-thirds supermajority in the Senate and, while they do in the Assembly, some of the seats they hold represent more conservative districts. Those legislators may have second thoughts about casting the deciding votes on tax increases in an election year. Moreover, both the widely popular initiative to roll back the car and gas tax increase as well as the decisive recall of state Sen. Josh Newman, who voted for a whole host of new taxes, have forced Democrats to abandon their reflexive approvals of tax increases.
Beyond politics, we can thank Proposition 13 and its constitutional protections, which require all taxes to receive a two-thirds vote of both houses of the Legislature. Most of the tax increases listed above would have been approved if only a majority vote was needed to pass them. It’s difficult to ponder what our checking accounts would look like if legislators had essentially unrestrained ability to raise taxes at will. On the 40th anniversary of Proposition 13, we can celebrate that all taxpayers continue to be protected by this landmark initiative.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.