Last week’s column was entitled, “Legislative session ends with declaration of war on taxpayers.” The war has now gone nuclear. Governor Gavin Newsom and the Legislature just filed a lawsuit, directly in the California Supreme Court, seeking to have the Taxpayer Protection and Government Accountability Act removed from the November 2024 ballot before voters get a chance to approve it.
The Taxpayer Protection and Government Accountability Act (TPA) was written to restore key provisions of a series of voter-approved ballot measures that gave taxpayers, not politicians, more say over when and how new tax revenue is raised. Over the past decade, the California courts have created massive loopholes and confusion in long-established tax law and policy. TPA closes those loopholes and provides new safeguards to increase accountability and transparency over how politicians spend our tax dollars.
After more than a million Californians signed petitions to successfully put TPA on the November 2024 ballot, government officials started talking about this popular taxpayer-protection measure as if it was going to end Western Civilization.
First, the League of California Cities, which never met a tax that it didn’t like, disseminated a “Special Release” claiming TPA somehow restricts the right to vote on tax measures. This was absurd as the whole point of Proposition 13, Proposition 218, and now TPA, was to guarantee the right to vote on taxes.
Proposition 13 requires that a local special tax (meaning for a specific purpose) must receive a two-thirds vote of the electorate in order to pass. In 2017, this clear requirement was weakened by ambiguity in the California Supreme Court’s infamous Upland decision, which has been interpreted to allow special taxes to pass with only 50% plus one vote if the tax was put on the ballot by a “citizens’ initiative.” This has enabled special interests to write their own tax increases, direct the money to themselves, and get these self-serving measures passed with only a simple majority vote. TPA restores the two-thirds vote requirement and closes this costly loophole.
The second attack against the Taxpayer Protection Act was launched by the California Legislature with a late-session gut-and-amend that became Assembly Constitutional Amendment 13. This measure was a cynical attempt to derail TPA by changing the rules for passing certain kinds of constitutional amendments — specifically, initiatives that protect taxpayers by requiring a two-thirds vote to raise taxes.
If ACA 13 is enacted, TPA itself would require a two-thirds vote of the statewide electorate to pass, instead of a simple majority. It would be the first and only constitutional amendment in the history of the state that would be required to reach two-thirds voter approval. Supporters of ACA 13 insist it’s unfair for an amendment (like Prop. 13, for example) to pass with a simple majority if it imposes a higher threshold for passing something else. This argument is at odds with history. In 1879 the Legislature wrote a constitution that required a two-thirds vote to approve bonded indebtedness, then approved the constitution by a simple majority vote. That has always been the law in California.
Perhaps ACA 13, which would have to go on the ballot for voter approval, wasn’t looking like a winning strategy for the tax-and-spend crowd, because on Tuesday, the governor and the Legislature filed their lawsuit to try to knock TPA off the ballot before the election.
This outrageous attempt to block voter approval of TPA may backfire. Now voters will hear even more about the measure’s key provisions, such as requiring all new state taxes passed by the Legislature to go on the ballot for voter approval. Voters will be happy to hear that TPA restores the two-thirds vote threshold for local special taxes, and that it clears up muddy definitions that allow taxes to be mislabeled as “fees.” Voters will also like TPA’s transparency requirement that ballot labels must not only state clearly that a tax increase is a tax increase, but also disclose how the money will be spent.
By filing a “pre-election challenge” to TPA, big spending politicians have revealed themselves as being panicked that it will pass. Polling – both private and public – shows that Californians have about had it with higher taxes, especially when those higher taxes are not accompanied by more or improved levels of public services.
The fight over TPA is the latest battle in a 45-year war over whether it will – or will not – be easier to raise your taxes. Assuming that the Supreme Court rejects the effort to take the Taxpayer Protection Act off the ballot, there will be, in the words of Ronald Reagan, “a time for choosing.”
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.