The Blog

The Fight in California

Edwards? Kerry? Whatever. The real action in the Golden State is Arnold and three important ballot initiatives.

11:00 PM, Mar 1, 2004 • By BILL WHALEN
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Spin number three: Avoid the tax issue by convincing voters that this is about punishing Sacramento. Thus the initiative has been sexed up with plenty of tough talk: the governor and the legislature permanently lose salary and expenses for each day the budget is late (lawmakers have missed the June 15 constitutional budget deadline 21 of the last 25 years); the legislature has to stay in session until a budget is passed; 25 percent of certain state revenue increases must be deposited in a reserve fund, which cannot be used to increase spending.

WHAT HAPPENS if voters buy the spin? First, there's new math in Sacramento. At present, Democrats need six Republican votes in the Assembly and only two in the Senate to raise taxes. But lower the two-thirds requirement to 55 percent, and the Democrats can raise taxes on a straight party-line vote--even worse, with enough spare votes to free members in competitive districts to cover themselves.

Indeed, it wouldn't be a question of whether or not to challenge Schwarzenegger to raise taxes, but simply which plan to put forward. State Treasurer Phil Angelides, who opposes the "Schwarz-initiatives," has said that should Props. 57 and 58 fail, the legislature should go with his contingency plan, a quarter-cent raise of the sales tax, and higher personal income taxes on high-wage earners for a three-year period to cover the current debt.

Or the Democrats could again try what they attempted during last year's budget debate: high taxes for the wealthy, a quarter-cent increase in the sales tax, and new taxes on gasoline, alcohol, and forest products.

Or they could go for something along the lines of what Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante proposed during recall: an $8 billion tax hike directed at the wealthy, business owners, commercial property, and cigarette and alcohol users.

But after the votes are counted, that just might amount to little more than California dreaming. The most recent Field poll has Prop. 56 trailing, 33 percent to 51 percent (it enjoyed 37 percent support in January). The soft showing may be due to the "no" campaign's relentless message that 56's passage will pave the way to higher taxes.

There may be another factor at work. The most recent Los Angeles Times survey gives the Governator a whopping 65 percent job approval rating. The legislature, drafting behind the optimism of the newly elected governor, received a 32 percent approval rating--up from 24 percent last August. Californians might not be in the same foul mood they were the last time they went to the polls.

This means that Proposition 56, which is betting heavily on fall's anti-Sacramento sentiment, might be terminated. Making it a most super Tuesday for Californians who don't like higher taxes.

Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.