With all the state and local taxes on the November ballot, one would think that government at all levels in California was starved for revenue. But even a cursory review of the Golden State’s “tax machine” reveals that the tax burden is already too heavy for many to bear. California has the highest income rate in America (likely to be extended for another 12 years) and the highest state sales tax rate. And despite Prop 13, our per capita property tax collections ranks no lower than 14th in the nation.
In the June primary, voters already passed 29 out of 40 local tax increases. But those taxes register as barely a blip compared to the earthquake confronting voters in less than three weeks. According to the California Taxpayers Association, there are 228 local tax measures representing a cumulative tax increase of more than $3 billion per year, along with 193 bonds (more than $30 billion’s worth) that would dramatically increase annual property taxes.
After the June primary, this column observed that the high rate of passage reflected not so much a love for higher taxes as it did the fact that the tax raisers have become experts at gaming the system to pass tax and bond measures. Highly paid political consultants tell local officials not to publicize tax elections to the entire community, but to target only their supporters. This means running stealth elections, communicating (in the case of school bonds) with only administrators and construction firms who are always more than willing to finance political campaigns and, of course, public employee unions who never met a tax they didn’t like.
The strategies that the pro-taxers employ to extract money from an unsuspecting citizenry are endless. For example, many school boards, cities and counties do all they can to time elections so that potential opponents have inadequate time to mobilize. The ultimate goal is to prevent an opposition argument from even appearing in the ballot pamphlet. On countless occasions, taxpayer advocates have been blindsided by proposed tax increases because they were only afforded a few precious days to submit an argument. And when it is too late, there are few legal remedies.
The ultimate insult to taxpayers, of course, is when local governments use public dollars to engage in political advocacy to influence an election. In theory, it is illegal for officials to use public resources (including public funds) to urge a vote for or against a political issue. But, in practice, it happens all the time. Two weeks ago, both the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and the Central Coast Taxpayers Association filed a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission alleging campaign reporting violations of the Political Reform Act by the County of San Luis Obispo, the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments (SLOCOG) and the Yes on Measure J Committee, a group pushing a local transportation tax. These government entities have spent nearly a quarter of a million taxpayer dollars on promotional materials and government employee and contractor compensation supporting Measure J.
As the November election draws near, the complaints about government interference in elections have ramped up dramatically. In Sacramento, the Sacramento City Unified School District used “robocalls” to contact thousands of parents with “important information” about the benefits of a parcel tax as well as statewide Proposition 55. According to the Sacramento Bee, the district sent the scripted messages recorded by five district trustees through its automated telephone message distribution system, explaining how the two tax measures would raise money for school programs and services that otherwise could be slashed. (This despite the fact that education spending in California has exploded since 2010).
Such communications are neither information nor balanced. They are always one-sided puff pieces designed solely to extract yes votes from uninformed voters.
California voters need to be alert to the lies, distortions and illegal expenditures of taxpayer dollars when considering any request for higher taxes. Yes, government services require public dollars. But before voting yes on any tax increase, ask yourself why is it that other states have markedly better public services without the high price tag.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.