How Jerry Brown’s Tax Fight Sets an Example for DC


Shortly after winning approval of Proposition 30, his measure to raise taxes to protect schools from further cutbacks, Gov. Jerry Brown suggested to CNN’s Candy Crowley that the social contract underlying California’s vote was similar to the dynamic facing Congress as it considers President Obama’s call to raise taxes on income above $250,000.

“Those who have been blessed the most, who have disproportionately extracted, by whatever skill, more and more from the national wealth, they’re going to have to share more of that,” Brown said.

This, of course, was little more than a secular reformulation of what the former Catholic seminarian had learned in Luke 12:48 – “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required.”

Coming as it did in California, the birthplace of the anti-tax movement with Proposition 13 in 1978, the 55% vote for Brown’s Proposition 30 — raising taxes by 1-4% on income over $250,000 — is especially noteworthy as a measure of voters’ increasing receptivity to certain kinds of tax increases.

“The Republicans long ago concluded they needed to be against all tax hikes — that voters wouldn’t distinguish between those who had to pay the higher taxes and those who wouldn’t,” said Democratic consultant Bill Carrick of Los Angeles.

“But voters do discriminate between taxes that affect lower-income and middle-class people and taxes on people who make $250,000 and more. That’s an alarming fact for the Republicans. They just can’t accept that,” Carrick said.

Also, in Congress, said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, while some of the Republicans have figured this out and are willing to compromise in theory, “They’re worried about getting tea-partied in a primary” if they vote for any tax increase – even one that would affect only the wealthiest 2%.

Their reluctance is understandable, from a purely political standpoint. While the most recent ABC-Washington Post poll found that about 60% of the population supports higher taxes on higher incomes, support breaks sharply on partisan lines. Among Democrats, 73% support such tax hikes and among independents, it’s 63%. But Republicans – those whom GOP Congress members are worried about – 59% oppose tax hikes – even on just the rich.

But as Brown noted in his interview with Crowley, times are changing.

“I was here in 1978, when Howard Jarvis beat the entire Establishment, Republican and Democrat, because the property taxes had just gotten out of control,” he said. “Now the cutting, the cutting and the deficits are out of control.”

Said Steve Glazer, a senior adviser to the governor:

“We weren’t trying to send a national message. We were just trying to balance our budget, protect schools and public safety. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a message from California that says you don’t have to be afraid of a tax increase if you explain it properly and have the right measure.”

In other words, because of Jerry Brown’s political skill, California – home of the anti-tax movement in America – has signaled that tax increases, carefully crafted and aimed – are not necessarily the third rail of politics, as Republicans in the post-Ronald Reagan Era have so wholly assumed.

Gov. Brown deserves enormous credit for taking on this fight – no mean feat given that he was opposed by the Howard Jarvis Amen Chorus on the right and the dilettante millionaire activist Molly Munger on the left.

As Carrick observed, there are two parts to the formula that Obama and the Democrats in Washington should understand: 1) Making clear that the burden of the high tax rates will fall only on wealthy people who can and ought to afford it and 2) Describing in clear detail what’s being protected from cuts by increasing taxes on the 2%.

In California, at least, said Carrick, “The voters decided that’s a good bargain.”

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  1. avatar chuckmcfadden says:

    There’s something else noteworthy about the Prop. 30 victory: The normally cautious and calculating Jerry Brown put it all on the line. Remember, the proposition wasn’t doing all that well in the polls — hovering around 50 percent not too long before Nov. 6 — and despite consultant Ace Smith’s observation that the times have changed, and 50 percent these days isn’t as significant as it used to be, Brown was still taking a real chance. Now he’s riding high,and it remains to be seen if he will stand athwart any wild-eyed Democratic moves to use the supermajority to increase taxes. Everyone vows that isn’t going to happen, but there are mutterings, people.

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