California Commentary from Howard Jarvis Taxpayer's Association

Be Careful What You Sign

By John Coupal President of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association

Armed with a clipboard and a smile, they stand on the sidewalk in front of popular stores and public buildings. “Want to support schools?” or “Do you want to end poverty?” they call out to passersby. Those who respond positively are asked to sign a petition to place a measure to accomplish the stated goal on the ballot.

These are signature gathers, usually paid by the interests advancing the initiative they tout. They are not obligated to fully explain who would actually benefit from the passage of measure which, more times than not, is the sponsor of the initiative. And they do not have to volunteer if the initiative would raise taxes. In fact, for tax increase measures, saying that the proposal would hike taxes is likely the last thing they would admit.

However, even if signature gatherers are, at times, misleading, this does not justify further weakening the People’s right to initiative, referendum and recall, as some suggest. As with all matters relating to government, it remains the voter’s responsibility be informed and to ask questions — and questions should be asked before signing a petition in support of a measure that could result in a major change in state law.

The tools of direct democracy are worth preserving. They vest the citizenry with the power to be the legislature of last resort when sitting lawmakers prove to be indolent, incompetent or corrupt and unable to properly carry out the most important business of the public. One has only to look back to 1978. When the Legislature and then Governor Brown refused to act, voters placed on the ballot and approved Proposition 13, an answer to escalating property taxes that were literally forcing many from their homes.

Support for the legislative referendum in our country goes back to Thomas Jefferson, who advocated for its inclusion in the Virginia state constitution. Its implementation in California is credited to Governor Hiram Johnson.

Johnson was elected in 1910 on an anti-Southern Pacific Railroad platform at a time when most members of the Legislature where bought and paid for by the railroad. (An ironic historical footnote: Shortly after taking office Johnson paroled notorious Southern Pacific train robber, Chris Evans.)

In a 1911 special election, California voters approved the initiative process which allowed regular folks to be involved in making laws and broke the stranglehold of the railroad had on the Legislature. The politicians, none of whom like to share power, have been disgruntled ever since. Of course, the fact that politicians don’t like the people’s initiative, referendum and recall rights, that are embedded in the state constitution, may be one of the best arguments that these rights must be retained.

However, the key to a vibrant and effective initiative process is an informed public. So if asked to sign a petition, be wary. Read the initiative summary that is required to be printed at the top of the petition form. There are initiatives in circulation right now that would increase income taxes and undermine Proposition 13 protections for taxpayers. If there is a tax increase included, you may still decide to sign, but at least you will know the impact of your decision in a state where we already have the highest income rate, the highest state sales tax and were we rank in the top four in total tax burden. In other words, caveat emptor.

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.

 

Open Season on Taxpayers

 

By John Coupal President of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association

Even if one lives in a cave, it’s hard to avoid the publicity surrounding the high profile presidential debates that are a reminder that this is an election year. And California taxpayers know, from hard experience, it also means that it is open season on taxpayers as local politicians rush to put tax increases on the ballot.

Emboldened by success in little-publicized 2015 off-year elections in which 29 out of 40 local tax increase measures passed, scores of communities and special districts are seeing this year as an ideal opportunity to raise your taxes.

Presidential election years tend to bring out more voters, including many who do not pay close attention to what’s on the ballot until the last minute. These “low information voters” are a prime target of tax raisers because they are more easily convinced by simplistic arguments. These duplicitous arguments often tout the benefits of a measure to a community, without ever mentioning that it is a new tax. Or they minimalize the actual cost by expressing it in pennies per day, “It will only cost about 50 cents a day!”

Of course those promoting new or higher taxes do not want taxpayers to notice that they are often being attacked on several fronts simultaneously, as cities, counties and special districts reach for their wallets.

One of the most popular taxes from the standpoint of public officials is the parcel tax, usually a uniform property tax on all “parcels” of property within a community or district. The politicians like these taxes because, unlike bonds which must be used for brick and mortar projects, the revenue from parcel taxes can be used for any purpose including raises in pay and pensions for public employees.

These taxes are insidious because they exceed Proposition 13 limits and there is no relationship between what is being charged and the property owner’s ability to pay. A young couple in a starter home, an elderly couple in a bungalow and a multimillionaire in a mansion, all pay the same amount. Additionally, parcel taxes bear no direct connection to any service actually provided to the property owner.

Already there is a parcel tax slated for nine Bay Area counties, while cities and school districts throughout the state are preparing their own new taxes for the ballot.

So, if you are a property owner, especially one on a limited budget, it is important to familiarize yourself with what is on your local ballot. There is a good chance that you will find a parcel property tax. Fortunately, because of Proposition 13, these require a two-thirds vote, so if a tax is not justified, there is a realistic opportunity for voters to reject it.

To paraphrase a series of commercials promoting a satellite television service currently urging viewers “don’t be a settler” – “don’t be a low information voter.” When your sample ballot arrives in a few short months, study it carefully. Keep in mind that the official title and summary for tax measures are often manipulated by the political class to encourage a Yes vote. If you have any doubts about the information provided, do further research.
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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.

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