Electoral history in California tells us that if the ballot is cluttered with overlapping or competing measures, voters throw up their hands and reject them all. It’s an entirely rational response: After electing people to run the government, why should we have to do their job?
Sacramento insiders will go on about the two-thirds requirement to raise taxes and the Republicans’ veto power. They’ll note that voters consistently argue to retain their power at the ballot box. They whine that polling shows people want government services, they just don’t want to pay for them. Yada yada yada.
None of this matters. What matters, as we noted two weeks ago, is that unless Brown can get proponents and backers of other tax measures to stand down and unite behind his proposal for a temporary tax increase, voters will almost certainly vote “No, No, No!”
Which is why this week we asked our Calbuzz Advisory Board of Leading Authorities on Practically Everything: What should Gov. Brown say to the sponsors of other proposed tax measures to convince them to stand down and unite behind his tax measure?
There was no clear consensus, but one thought occurred to several of the panelists. As one Republican put it:
“I’m governor, you’re not. As the people’s elected leader, I ask you to unite behind my plan so we’ll achieve our common goal. If there are too many angels on the head of this pin, we all go down.”
Or as one Democrat framed it: “He should say ‘united we stand, divided we fall.’ Either join with me or get out of the way.”
Another Democrat argued “Simple. Just show them the money quote from Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Foundation: ‘If they fail to present a united front, it could benefit us.’ That, and threaten to campaign against all the other measures.”
Whether Gov. Gandalf has the political skill and/or muscle to forge that united front is far from certain. He was unable to get a temporary tax increase through the Legislature or even to get a handful of Republican votes to place a measure on the ballot.
As Joshua Pechthalt, president of the California Teachers Federation (which wants to tax millionaires only) told Steve Harmon of the Bay Area News Group: “Our proposal draws a sharp line in the sand politically. . . We’re not trying to poke a finger in anybody’s eye, but if you’re true to your values about who’s been benefiting and not and who should pay their fair share, you have to decide that there is a group of folks who can afford to take on a greater responsibility. . . We don’t feel like we have to back away from engaging in this debate.”
Said one Democrat on the Calbuzz Consultanate panel: “Maybe Brown could quote some arcane bit of Jesuit theology, or spout some esoteric Latin phrase that no one will understand, either. He didn’t have enough influence to stop his own Democratic Party state chair [John Burton] from filing a competing tax initiative, so how much control can he exert over anyone else in the process? With a 42 percent approval rating, and having raised virtually no money his first year in office, Brown’s not exactly a feared figure right now.”
Which might render impotent, the advice one Republican had for what Brown should say to other tax measure proponents: “I’m gonna make you an offer you can’t refuse.”
Which is kinda what another Republican consultant told us: “It’s pretty simple. He should tell them that they’ll all be screwed. The more tax measures on the ballot the more likely they’ll all go down in flames. The lack of discipline on the left really speaks to how weak politically the governor is.”
There’s no question that the proliferation of measures that could appear on the ballot stem from a sense among the public that cutbacks have begun to take a toll and a willingness – at least in polling – to raise some taxes for specific purposes, like schools.
Brown’s best argument to the general public may be that his proposal –raising income taxes on individuals who make $250,000 or more and increasing the sales tax by a half-cent, directing $7 billion to schools – is temporary. But that’s not necessarily a selling point to partisan liberals who want to soak the ultra-rich who have continued to prosper during hard times.
“The Department of Finance consistently underestimates revenue increases coming out of a recession,” a Republican on the Calbuzz panel argued. “So that $10 billion deficit could be down to low single digits. Which means the most modest tax increase, if any at all, is the one with the best chance . . . Millionaires are exiting the state in droves already. So any increase needs to be small and temporary.”
This same Republican said he opted for the rational argument instead of advising Brown to tell others: “I’ve been doing this a lot longer than you. I know what I am doing. Get out of my way.”
One Democrat suggested Brown might try a bit of political jujitsu: “He shouldn’t try to get them to stand down. He should use the other measures to convince potential opponents to support his measure as a reasonable consensus. He should argue that a tax measure will pass, and it can either be his or a much tougher measure, less friendly to business. With more than 65 percent of voters supporting a tax measure, the governor needs to convince the anti-tax crowd that the best move is getting behind him rather than trying to hold back the tide.”
This sounds to us, however, like wishful thinking: The anti-tax crowd is not interested in rational argument and they’re not afraid of asking voters to raise taxes – as long as there are several measures on the ballot to confuse the issue.
No, as another Democrat argued, “History is clear. Multiple ballot measures on the same issue result in big time voter confusion and the ‘NO’ vote wins. The passage of any tax increase measure will be extremely difficult given the potential for deep-pockets opposition. A multiple-choice tax increase ballot will be a disaster no matter how well-intentioned or well-thought out the other tax measures besides Gov. Brown’s are.”
Here are some of the other responses from the Calbuzz Consultanate:
— As a Republican who believes that state government needs to be reformed and restructured before additional tax increases are justified, I don’t have any advice to offer the governor. There is a clear history in California of tax proposals polling favorably at first and then losing on election day. My bet is that this is what occurs again in 2012.
— The governor is going to have to communicate that he’s willing to drive his initiative to success, something he cannot say he’s been successful doing to date on the 2011 budget and pension issues. Proponents for the competing measures are going to need to see a fully engaged chief executive who’s willing to raise the money, and invest his political capital to get the measure over the finish line, because even then, it’s a tough hill to climb.
— Frankly, I’m not sure what he can say to them. I think the heavy lifting will have to be done by organized labor on Gov. Brown’s behalf. I think the various interest groups involved feel so pressed that they have nothing left to lose and will go lemming-like off a cliff before they go back to their constituents and say “it’s not our turn, the other guys have to go first.”
— We can’t get greedy and try to raise too many taxes at once — otherwise we’ll all fail. Plus, if you keep your measure on the ballot, I will have a tough time endorsing it over mine.
— Unlike the rest of you guys, my initiative was carefully designed to give it the best chance of passing. If you want a tax increase, the research shows mine can pass, as long as it’s the only one on the ballot. Besides, I’ve got labor, the tribes and my other friends with recession-proof pocketbooks lined up to help. We are ready to spend $50 million or more to pass my initiative. Some of my friends are planning their own efforts, which could include early negative efforts to define your initiative as a devastating mistake for our state. Your initiative will end up poorly funded, struggling to reach enough voter eyeballs and headed to an embarrassing defeat for you and your members.
— If we don’t fix the budget the cuts will surpass any of benefits of their measures . . . and if they fail, the state will be in a critical state . . . and they will all lose if they all go on the ballot. We need to focus on the measure that will help the budget.
— I made an error in judgment and I’m going to drop mine and get behind the millionaires tax because that’s the one that is fairest and has the best chance of winning.
— With a spending cap and other confusing issues bound to already clutter the November ballot, if the goal is truly to provide a balanced budget with additional revenue, only one measure on the ballot makes the most sense. Just because there is polling evidence that the electorate can tolerate a measure that increases taxes, there is absolutely no evidence they will want something that is not temporary (three others) or new funding (Munger.)
— Vaya con dios.