Fading rule of law in California

By now, only the truly delusional deny that California has an acute exodus problem. The number of people and businesses leaving the state is not just significant, it’s quantifiable.

A recent study by two economics professors from Chapman University reveals that those who now categorize themselves as “former” Californians, not surprisingly, were motivated most by high taxation and heavy regulation.

But other reasons include those that affect quality of life: Housing costs, unemployment, homelessness, gas prices, wildfires, and drought. Worse, citizens believe — correctly — that our elected leadership isn’t equipped to deal with these issues.

Rising in the polls as grounds for concern is the rapidly increasing crime rate in California. In 2020, homicides in the state increased 31%, reaching the highest total in 13 years. Especially alarming is the wanton lawlessness on display in both Los Angeles and San Francisco. Who isn’t appalled at criminals brazenly clearing out shelves in retail businesses — especially drug stores like Walgreens that have closed en masse recently — and nonchalantly walking out with stolen goods, knowing there will be no consequences from the criminal justice system?

The frustration among the law-abiding public is reaching critical mass. Recall campaigns have been launched against George Soros-backed district attorneys in both Los Angeles and San Francisco. And those who believe that these recall efforts have nothing to do with the pending recall election of Gov. Gavin Newsom may be mistaken. Remember that after voters made clear their support for California’s death penalty, Newsom announced he would never allow any criminal behavior, no matter how heinous, to be the grounds for imposing that penalty.

But lawlessness and abandonment of the rule of law is not just taking place in the realm of criminal law. The same is true for civil law, especially when it comes to taxpayer protections in the California Constitution specifically approved by the voters.

We’ve been down this road before. After Proposition 13 was enacted in 1978, the California Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Rose Bird, began picking it apart piece by piece. Strange rulings, contrary to the interests and intent of those who voted for Prop. 13, perverted the meaning of its terms including the definitions of “special tax” and “special district.” Virtually every ruling from the California judiciary was against taxpayers.

Things changed for the better, however, when voters removed Rose Bird and two other progressive justices. They were replaced by appointees of Republican governors, which resulted in a temporary return to sanity. Courts began, as they should, to apply the language of the law to the specific facts of the cases before them in a manner consistent with the intent of voters or, in the case of statutory law, the intent of the legislature.

But now after years of judicial appointments from Jerry Brown, and now Gavin Newsom, the pendulum has swung back hard left for both criminal and civil law.

The most recent trend has been especially harsh on the interests of the taxpaying public. Despite voter-approved initiatives intended to close the court-created loopholes in Proposition 13, the negative rulings continue on a seemingly weekly basis.

For example, in 2017, the California Chamber of Commerce lost an important case against the California Air Resources Board based on Proposition 26, an HJTA-supported initiative that sought to prevent the abuse of using “fees” as a means to circumvent limitations on “taxes.” The court in that case found that a government imposed exaction against businesses was neither a “tax” or “fee” but simply “something else.”

More recently, the California Supreme Court created an exception to Prop. 13’s requirement that locally-imposed special taxes must receive a two-thirds vote of the electorate, asserting that the requirement would not apply if the tax were the result of a local initiative. HJTA warned the Court in CCC v. Upland that if they carved out special-tax initiatives as an exception to the two-thirds vote requirement, politicians would hijack the people’s right of initiative to exploit the exception.

Sure enough, there have been four additional cases which have exploited this loophole over our objections.

And last week, in HJTA v. Weber, the Court of Appeal ruled against taxpayers in a challenge to the legislature’s abusive practice of using “budget trailer bills” as a means to circumvent the constitutional requirement that bills intended to take effect immediately receive a two-thirds vote of each house.

By characterizing non-budget bills as “budget related,” the legislature is brazenly enacting changes to election laws with the obvious intention of maintaining progressives’ grip on political power.

These anti-taxpayer rulings are disappointing but not fatal to our interests. We have many instruments in the freedom toolbox to advance the cause of fiscal responsibility and limited government. And remember, the pendulum always swings back in politics.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.