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The Politics of Taxes in California

One of the big problems in California is that raising taxes requires a two-thirds majority in the legislature. Republican legislators are rare in California, but not that rare, and so their unified opposition to tax increases means there are never any tax increases. That's part of how California got into this budget mess. Kevin Drum, however, makes an interesting point on the unintended consequences that that supermajority requirement has had on the politics of the state:

I wonder if Republicans ever stop to think about how badly these rules have hurt them too? Don't get me wrong: for various reasons, California would probably be a blue state these days regardless of whether we had a two-thirds rule or not. But the fact is that Californians, like most people, are generally unfriendly to tax increases. And yet they keep voting for Democrats anyway. Why?

Well, why not? Everyone knows the two-thirds rule will keep them from raising taxes, so if you like them for other reasons there's no reason not to vote for them.

But what if they could boost tax rates? Then, basically, their bluff would be called. They'd have to either raise taxes, thus pissing off a lot of people and giving Republicans a great campaign issue, or they'd have to leave taxes alone and take responsibility for cutting services. There would be no Republicans to blame it on. And guess what? That might make Democrats quite a bit less popular.

Now, it's unlikely that anything could turn the California legislature over to the GOP in the near future, but in the past 25 years California has had only one Democratic governor — and we recalled him after five years in office. We're not all that unfriendly to Republicans. If Democrats had the power to raise taxes — and actually did it — we might become even less unfriendly toward the GOP.

In other words, even though the two-thirds rule is the only thing that currently gives Republicans any influence at all in Sacramento, repealing it might be their only long-term hope of ever taking back the California legislature. Ironic, isn't it?

This is, I think, what happens when a minority decides it will never again be a majority. The Republican legislators only consider themselves accountable to the conservative districts that elect them, not to some hypothetical median voter they'd like to impress. Though I think that's a little less true this year, as they think there's an outside chance that voters will blame Democrats for the state's total collapse and elect some Republicans in their stead. They're burning the village to get elected in it. Neat strategy, huh?

By Ezra Klein  |  July 23, 2009; 3:10 PM ET
Categories:  California  
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It's time to openly criticize the impact of the public employee unions on California. Why do they get a free pass? They are the common denominator in States and industries that are falling apart.

Why are you giving the Republicans credit for the union's accomplishment?

The Democrats support the unions and the unions gradually destroy everything they touch. Sounds like a brilliant model to federalize, huh?

Posted by: fallsmeadjc | July 23, 2009 4:01 PM | Report abuse

Let's assume that Dems and Repubs were equally likely to view tax increases as partial solutions to budgetary problems (by some born-again conversion to tax/spending rationality). Would the Repubs gain signficantly (in CA) as a result?

The answer, my friends, is written in the wind: then the voters would have to consider Republican crazyness on other issues as potentially viable to the Dem. alternative. How about female health issues concerned with sex and having children? No help there. The GOP is still advancing from the endless war against abortion (even with danger to the life and health of the female) to the next battlefront: contraception. The GOP meme is 'have children because its good to be pregnant, and especially good as a punishment for being promiscuous'. But do nothing to make raising the resulting kids more humane and intelligent. Will that fly?

How about health insurance? Will the GOP give up its insistence that each person should bear the cost of staying healthy by saving enough cash to pay for it (with perhaps some catastrophic limit on self-funding)? Not likely.

How about the issue of crime and punishment? Will the GOP be satisfied with some plan that doesn't incarcerate a growing proportion of the population for long terms (and then, like fallsmeadjc, complains that prison guards have freely chosen to display their power gained by joining unions)?

In summary, what about the GOP 'program' would be attractive to CA voters (besides taxes)? Cutting spending upon the onset of recessions, with no counter-cyclical stimulus from the government? Healthcare? Pregancy/prevention and Sex? Public schools funding?

The national GOP and the CA GOP are siblings. No health care plans. No economic stabilization. No regulation of huge corporations to prevent greed and irresponsibility? Endless spending on war and crime/punishment? Tax cuts as the cure for all ills? There is no there there that is attractive.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | July 23, 2009 4:34 PM | Report abuse

This analysis misses the race angle. California Republicans made themselves the party of cranky, anxious older white people as the state turned brown. Less and less do they look like or think like the substantial majority of Californians. So they just dig in and wait for the flood to overwhelm and drown them.

Posted by: janinsanfran | July 23, 2009 8:32 PM | Report abuse

That's all true if you assume that the California GOP cares about being elected and governing, but I think there's ample evidence that the GOP doesn't want to govern.

However, with the 2/3 rule, a rump can effectively keep taxes in check, and eventually spending will have to fall. California is a slowly dying example of the "starve the beast" philosophy in action. And it looks like it will work (those IOUs aren't going to work forever. It's entirely possible that they're unconstitutional, and people might look the other way for a few months out of a desire to not have to deal with the problem, but the forbearance won't go on forever).

It will be at a terrible cost to California and probably the rest of the nation, but no one who's been paying attention for the last decade or so should be surprised by that.

Posted by: TWAndrews | July 24, 2009 10:06 AM | Report abuse

There is a similar dynamic in the US Senate. The filibuster-proof requirement of 60 votes allows each party to posture when in the majority knowing that the minority will block them. For instance, a Republican majority can propose all sorts of things like fiscally irresponsible tax cuts or banning abortions knowing that Democrats won't let them through. And Democrats can do the same when they're in the majority.

But if there were a serious chance that such proposals would actually pass, maybe they'd have to hold themselves accountable for their rhetoric. And so maybe their positions might become more reasonable and realistic. Sure, the minority party would lose some power, but the majority party might be forced to be more centrist; if it doesn't, then it opens up the minority party's opportunity to gain ground. And wouldn't that be good for democracy?

Posted by: dasimon | July 24, 2009 12:37 PM | Report abuse

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