Questionable Lawsuits Target Taxpayers

Several years ago Stephan Pastis the creator of "Pearls Before Swine" drew a cartoon that illustrates the threat now faced by taxpayers. In the comic Zebra is complaining to his friend Goat that he was being sued by crocodiles. The crocodiles’ cause of action? "Defendant Zebra has willfully failed to be plaintiffs’ food in breach of Natural Law … Plaintiffs seek defendant Zebra cooked medium well over a barbecue pit."

Taxpayers know what it is like to be Zebra as the tax-and-spend lobby is accelerating its use of the courts in an effort to make sure that those who pay the bills are the main course of government’s feast.

Particularly alarming is a suit filed by former UCLA Chancellor Charles Young asking the court to declare unconstitutional Proposition 13’s requirement of a two-thirds vote for the Legislature to impose new state taxes.

The two-thirds vote to increase state taxes was written into Proposition 13 by Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann for good reason. Once the 1978 measure put limits on annual increases in property taxes the authors wanted to keep government from just reaching into another of the taxpayers’ pockets to make up the difference.

Still it has been proven that a two-thirds vote is attainable. In 1991 the Legislature increased sales and income taxes with a two-thirds vote. Earlier this year the Legislature imposed the most massive tax increase in the history of all 50 states again achieving the super-majority requirement. Although the new taxes are supposed to sunset after two years California now competes with New Jersey for the heaviest tax burden in the nation.

Young’s suit attempts to make the case that Proposition 13 is invalid because it is a revision not an amendment to the State Constitution. This argument was made in the 1978 case Amador Valley Joint Union High School District v. State Board of Equalization and was rejected by the California Supreme Court. However Young argues that the Court’s decision applies to other aspects of Proposition 13 not the two-thirds vote.

To ensure that Proposition 13 will be vigorously defended the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has asked the Supreme Court for permission to intervene in the case as an additional defendant. Our request argues that without our involvement Proposition 13 and the two-thirds vote requirement for passing a budget will not get a fair hearing.

Although Young’s suit must be taken very seriously — just look at what is at stake — there is a high probability that taxpayers will prevail. The great weight of legal authority leans heavily on the side of Proposition 13’s constitutionality.

Another recent lawsuit should also be resolved favorably to taxpayers. Senate Majority Leader Darrel Steinberg miffed that Governor Schwarzenegger actually reduced spending to more closely match revenue has argued that that those reductions in spending were illegal. But as cogently argued by Arnold’s legal team and others the Governor’s constitutional authority to reduce budget appropriations is plenary.

If Steinberg realizes as he should that his lawsuit has little chance of success why bring it? Well why does a career politician do anything? The answer is in the title of an analysis by political pundit Anthony York: "Steinberg Lawsuit Offers Political Dividends."

Indeed York unabashedly acknowledges that the suit was filed for reasons other than the underlying legal merits: "Whether he wins or loses the legal battle the benefits for Steinberg are manifold. It allows Steinberg to get back into the graces of Democratic interest groups who have watched Democrats approve deep budget cuts. It also gives Democrats a political opening to hammer Schwarzenegger."

But on this issue taxpayers are squarely in the Governor’s corner and his actions to cut spending were not only constitutional they reflect good policy.

In any event the interests of taxpayers are threatened not only when the Legislature is in session. The courts are another battlefield upon which taxpayers must be willing to fight and to take the best weapons they have available to them. As dozens of published cases make clear organizations with experienced litigators like the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association are great weapons to bring to the battle.

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.