Monday, February 27, 2012

Trust and leadership, Jerry Brown edition

Digby harshes on Jerry Brown in Governor Moonbeam goes dark Hullabaloo 02/26/2012 over his proposed ballot measure to increase California tax revenues. She cites Howie Klein's post When You Voted For Jerry Brown, Were You Under The Impression You Were Voting For A Democrat? Down With Tyranny! 02/24/2012 explaining the issue.

Capsule version: Jerry was elected pledging no taxes increases without a vote of the people. His proposal in 2011-12 for balancing the 2011-12 state budget was based primarily on reductions in services and a similar amount in increased revenues to come from a referendum to increase taxes. The Republicans in the legislature refused to agree to the referendum and Jerry made sure to clearly blame Republican obstructionism for it in public. Now, he's relying on the initiative route to put his revenue measure on the ballot, which will mean gathering signatures for it. Getting it on the ballot will not be a problem. And because Jerry has been clear and consistent from his 2010 campaign until now about the real tradeoffs between services and revenue, and because he's not afraid to fight the Republicans over something like this, polls currently show it has a good chance of passing.

Now there's a new twist. Howie:

We're in the middle of the biggest movement opportunity to increase taxes on the 1% and generate more revenue than arguably ever before in California history. The Millionaires Tax of 2012, a ballot measure sponsored by Courage Campaign, California Federation of Teachers, California Nurses Assocation and ACCE that is currently circulating for signatures, polls at freaking 70% among likely voters for November-- the highest I've ever seen a tax-raising measure polled. What does the measure do? It does what it sounds like-- raises taxes by 3% on every dollar a millionaire earns over $1 million and by 5% on every dollar over $2 million. That's it. No one making less than $1 million pays a penny more. How many people does that affect? 13,000 millionaires living in California-- 0.4% of Californians. That's right, it's not even taxing the 1%, it's taxing the frigging 0.4%, not to mention all those Facebook folks about to become millionaires by virtue of the IPO.
There is a third measure being proposed by a civil rights attorney, Molly Munger, that would raise income taxes with the additional funds designated for public education. See Nicholas Riccardi, Poll: Jerry Brown's tax can pass, but not with rivals on ballot [Updated} Los Angeles Times 02/22/2012.

My concern is the one expressed in that headline. Jerry has been doing extensive education/marketing for over a year on the idea of his proposed revenue measure and has the Democrats in the legislature backing him. That in itself is important. He's moving the California Democratic Party away from cowering to Republican framing and back toward making a case for positive government and progressive priorities.

On the face of it, the "millionaire's tax" sounds preferable. But we don't really need a poll to know that two or three tax-raising measures on the ballot are likely to split support, with some people voting for the "millionaire's tax" and not for the Democratic proposal, and vice versa. And with two or three tax measures on the ballot, the inevitable flood of opposition ads from Republicans and corporations will be able to confuse the two measures in voters' minds.

I don't really like the California initiative system, though I won't rant about all the reasons here. But one features of campaigns for ballot propositions is that the "yes" vote always starts at a disadvantage, in that if people are doubtful about a measure they tend to vote "no". In other words, to get a Yes vote, you have to convince people that it's something they want. To get a No vote, you just have to raise doubts about it.

And the campaigns over ballot propositions are often ludicrous. Not only do they often exaggerate or distort the actual provisions. They often focus on some minor provision and make it sound an asteroid about to crash into the Earth. For example, if the measure contains some reference to reporting requirements, the No ads might run messages like this:

Unprecedented increase in government demands for intimate details of your private life!
The Network of Business Accountants says, "paperwork requirement are unsustainable" and "will generate thousands of pages of new regulations on business"!
The Federation of Small Family Businesses found that Proposition X will result "in thousands of family-owned businesses closing their doors"!
And with two or more tax measures on the ballot, raising confusion and doubt about all of them with such ads will be more easily achieved.

The bottom line for me is that, based on what I know, I'd prefer to see Jerry's proposal alone on the ballot.

And this is where the trust factor comes in. Howie's post talks about Jerry as though he were a California version of Obama: emotionally inclined to support the One Percent, unwilling to fight for progressive priorities, and desperately looking to compromise with intransigent Republicans. That's just not Jerry Brown.

You can read about The Millionaires Tax of 2012 at the link. I like the progressive nature of the tax. I don't like the kind of earmarking that it does, apparently designating a certain percentage of all the revenue to go to designated purposes. What those provisions do in practice in complicate the budgeting process for the entities receiving the funding, i.e., they have to show that they complied with the technical provisions. But it's to a large extent illusory. If the schools have this designated stream of funding, local officials can reduce other sources of funding to the schools.

Their website also says, "Funding for services provided by the Millionaires Tax of 2012 will be distributed at the county level. The state legislature will not be allowed to re-allocate funding for other purposes." Presumably the 24% that is designated for institutions of higher education would be directed to those bodies, although if you read the text literally it would say the counties would distribute it to them, which doesn't make sense.

But there is an impressive list of labor and progressive organizations endorsing the Millionaires Tax. Digby and Howie may be right that the Millionaires Tax would be a better proposal for the Democrats to unite behind. But I'm not convinced. The politics of ballot measures, especially ones involving tax increases, are brutal. Jerry and the Democrats in the legislature have been laying the groundwork for their proposal for over a year. Right now, that looks like the better alternative to me.

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