We are often told that Californians will not vote to tax themselves. One would have thought after November 2008, where voters in four of the state’s most populous counties (Los Angeles, Santa Clara, Sonoma and Marin) approved tax increases to pay for passenger rail with 2/3rds majorities, that such a meme would have died. But it did not; old assumptions die hard, especially when they challenge conventional wisdom and conservative truths.
Yesterday’s election once again proved that, generally speaking, Californians are quite willing to tax themselves. Not every tax proposal passed, but in an extremely low turnout election (20% in Salinas, for example, a city which saw 80% turnout in November 2008) it’s a sign of how open CA voters are to taxes that nearly 2/3rds of them are headed for approval.
As Michael Coleman demonstrates, 65% of local tax measures on yesterday’s ballot are headed toward approval, putting to rest the notion that CA voters are inherently opposed to new taxes.
Granted, not every proposal passed. One common theme in yesterday’s election was resistance to using the sales tax as a method of providing for local services. In an election defined by economic populism, voters in Salinas, Ventura, and San Carlos said they did not want a regressive tax to fund key services (though San Mateo and Gustine did pass those taxes). Voters would likely prefer more progressive taxes, those that ask the wealthy to pay their fair share. Unfortunately local governments don’t generally have the power to levy those kind of taxes, and owing to Prop 13, have become dependent on the sales tax even against their own better judgement.
Some proposals easily cleared the 50% hurdle, but owing to the 2/3rds rule are going to “fail.” In a vote that I find especially painful since it’s the town just a few blocks away, Pacific Grove’s library is likely to close because a parcel tax to keep it open received 65% of the vote, but not the 66.7% it needed to pass. There may be a few votes still out there to push this over the top, but it’s a sign of how cruel and stupid the 2/3rds rule is, giving power to a small minority and disempowering the majority.
In some cases, local circumstances dictated the outcome. The Salinas sales tax proposal was dogged by concerns that the city council had misspent the funds from a 2005 sales tax increase, claims that have some merit. More significant in both Salinas and Ventura were low turnout; had the electorate more closely resembled that of November 2008 both measures might have passed.
What these measures do clearly show is that in an off-off-year election, where turnout is abysmal and favors conservatives, Californians are still willing to tax themselves to pay for government services. The notion that Californians are inherently opposed to taxes took another major hit yesterday. Let’s see if Democrats learn the lesson.