For more than a decade, the Republican Party has made it clear that any state legislator who votes for a tax increase, even a temporary one, will face the political death penalty – an immediate recall or removal from office in the next election. During my tenure in the Assembly (2000-06), Republican legislators who voted for taxes were defeated, typically in their next primary elections or when they ran for another office. (Two legislators, seeing the writing on the wall, simply quit.) Has the death penalty now evolved to apply to legislators who vote simply to place tax measures on the ballot?
This week, Republican lawmakers still are hanging tough in refusing to agree to Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed June special election that would extend current income, sales and vehicle license fee taxes. (Recall that voters rejected these extensions two years ago.) Brown is scrambling to find a handful of Republicans who might reverse course for June, and he is also now considering collecting signatures for a November ballot, when he could bypass recalcitrant Republicans altogether.
What is remarkable about expanding the political death penalty for errant Republicans is that it comes from a party that traditionally has argued strongly for voters’ rights and direct democracy.
During my tenure in Sacramento, Assembly floor debates on tax measures generally played out as follows:
Democrats: "No one likes tax increases, but we have to have them to avoid deep cuts in education and social services."
Republicans: "Taxes are already too high."
Democrats: "We’re just asking you to give voters a chance to vote these up or down. Just agree to place them on the ballot."
Republicans: "Voters have already spoken by passing Propositions 13, 61 and 218. They do not want new taxes and we have to respect their will." (Propositions 61 and 218 required voter approval for new local taxes.)
Democrats: "But Prop. 13 was passed nearly 30 years ago (in 1978). Prop. 61 was approved in 1986 and Prop. 218 in 1996. Shouldn’t we give voters the choice again? Most of those Prop. 13 voters aren’t even alive anymore!"
Republicans: "Voters have already spoken and we have to respect their will."
Granted, most Republican arguments against placing tax measures on the ballot relied on citizen-driven initiatives. But beyond that distinction, did voters in 1978, 1986 and 1996 have some special privilege that no longer exists? Apparently so.
What is strange about the current debate is that it is not about taxes but about voter choice. Even more bizarre, it contradicts the state GOP’s position as stated on its website: "Republicans believe individuals should control both their own and their government’s pocketbook – the people should authorize all tax increases."
In short, the people should authorize all tax increases. We just shouldn’t give them the opportunity to authorize them.
That convenient position may permit some lawmakers to avoid the political death penalty. But in its place, lawmakers are imposing a civic death penalty on voters, who no longer have a choice on the kind of California in which they choose to live.
Joe Nation, a former Democratic Assemblyman from Marin County, is a professor of the practice of public policy at Stanford University.
This article appeared on page A – 8 of the San Francisco Chronicle