Public Pledges vs. Private Pacts

With Jerry Brown seeking a hefty five year tax increase on already overburdened California families there has been a great deal of criticism leveled at Republican lawmakers who have signed a pledge not to support or assist in the raising of taxes and who have stated that they will not go along with the governor’s plan to place new taxes on the ballot. Those who support higher taxes say those running for office should not make such a commitment because the pledge that many signed is distributed and monitored by a Washington D.C.–based taxpayer group.

Former Fair Oaks Assemblyman Roger Niello a Republican who famously provided one of the final votes needed to impose massive new taxes on Californians two years ago complains that the pledge is a straitjacket. He touts the fact that he did not sign the pledge while in office and therefore he did not break faith with his constituents by supporting new taxes. He is right that he broke no pledge. He just supported bad fiscal policy that has damaged both taxpayers and the state economy. Voters had the final say on the wisdom of his actions by overwhelmingly rejecting his candidacy for higher office.

As to the pledge that states “I will oppose and vote against any and all efforts to increase taxes” it is clearly a promise made not to some out-of-state entity but to voters within a candidate’s district. Signing the pledge is a voluntary action which allows those running for office to make a very public commitment. It informs voters of the candidate’s position on the important issue of taxes and helps them in determining which candidates best reflect their own views on matters of public importance.

There is no penalty for those candidates choosing not to make the pledge other than having to be prepared to field questions about where they stand on new taxes. That’s hardly an onerous burden on those running for office.

However while attention is being diverted to the very public “tax pledge” the media seems to ignore the much more secret pacts made by so many candidates with the 800 pound gorilla in California politics the government employee unions.

Union bosses distribute millions of dollars extracted from union members’ dues to candidates every election cycle. Their goal is not “good government” but to elect those who are firmly committed to continuing policies that have made California’s employees the highest compensated in all 50 states.

The anointed candidates do not commonly announce to the world that they are dedicated to making the welfare of public workers a top priority at the expense of taxpayers. They leave it to the unions to get the word out to their members and the dollars they provide to buy advertising that focuses on issues of actual concern to voters. Using these tactics the government employee unions control almost two-thirds of the members of the California Legislature.

Those who have doubts should examine the tax increases of 2009. While tax raisers were claiming that their goal was to protect the least amongst us they voted to increase taxes like the sales and car tax and approved a reduction in the income tax exemption for dependent children all of which are burdens that fall disproportionally on low and middle income Californians. And except for a modest furlough program public employees were immune from cuts. (Public employment in California has actually increased during the recession).

So while weighing the value and appropriateness of candidates making a public tax pledge it is also important to review the impact on state tax policy of pacts made behind closed doors with government employee union bosses.

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.