A tax revolt in San Francisco?
Citizen tax revolts have been waged throughout American history. Indeed, the genesis of the United States was a dispute with Great Britain over taxes. The issue came to a head when colonists in Massachusetts dressed as Native Americans and dumped English tea into Boston Harbor. Literally, the original Tea Party.
But American independence didn’t stop citizens from protesting high taxes. Shays’ Rebellion in 1786 was an armed uprising in Massachusetts in response to a debt crisis among the citizenry and in opposition to the state government’s increased efforts to collect taxes both on individuals and their trades. Many historians believe that the difficulty in suppressing the revolt under the Articles of Confederation provided significant motivation to form a more powerful central government.
While the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in 1788 did in fact provide stronger federal authority, it didn’t prevent tax revolts. The Whiskey Rebellion, a fierce revolt against the new tax on distilled spirits imposed shortly after the formation of the federal government, was an early test of George Washington’s presidency.
Fast forward to more modern times. California’s own Proposition 13, passed in a landslide election in 1978, initiated the modern tax revolt. And, in an echo of 1776, a new Tea Party movement began in 2009 with a call for lower taxes, a reduction of the national debt, and less government spending. The movement launched the political careers of several members of Congress, many of whom are still serving.
Today’s media likes to portray those of us associated with taxpayer advocacy as ultra-conservative. But in a surprising development, there is a nascent “tax revolt” in the Castro District of San Francisco — whose population, by any objective standard, is the polar opposite of “conservative.”
According to an article by Jessica Flores in the San Francisco Chronicle, business owners in the Castro have repeatedly complained to city officials about the damage that homeless people have inflicted in the neighborhood, only to have the city fail to address the problem.
In response to the indifference of city officials, the Castro Merchants Association sent a letter to city officials urging them to take action on behalf of the beleaguered neighborhood. The letter described the usual problems associated with California’s horrific homeless problem: Vandalized storefronts, open drug use, business owners and customers, not to mention the “psychotic episodes.”
Now merchants say the situation has gotten so bad that they’re threatening to possibly stop paying city taxes and fees. “If the city can’t provide the basic services for them to become a successful business, then what are we paying for?” a leader of the association told The Chronicle. “You can’t have a vibrant, successful business corridor when you have people passed out high on drugs, littering your sidewalk. These people need to get help.”
This threat to withhold taxes and fees may not be on the same level as the violent Whiskey Rebellion or the political sea change of Prop. 13. But it does reflect a problem more pronounced in California than almost anywhere else in America: Not getting the services we pay for. Is it really so surprising that all citizens simply want services commensurate with the taxes they pay? In fact, complaints about California’s high tax burden often take a back seat to the fact that we pay a lot and get so little.
It shouldn’t take a tax revolt for officials to be more responsive to citizen concerns about high taxes as well as basic government services that our tax dollars are supposed to provide.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.