Volume 45 Number 27

Taxes — without the GOP


EDITORIAL Gov. Jerry Brown did everything he promised to do. He negotiated in good faith with the Republicans. He listened to their ideas. He made it clear he was willing to accept concepts (pension reform, for example) that his biggest campaign supporters wouldn’t like. And he got absolutely nowhere.

The Republicans in Sacramento have demonstrated over the past two months that they have no interest in solving the state’s budget crisis and that they’re nothing more than obstructionists. It’s time for the Democratic Party leadership to give up on all this talk of bipartisanship and craft a budget solution that works — without the GOP.

There are several possible alternatives, but they all require Brown and the Democratic leadership in the Legislature to acknowledge that there’s no way to keep the state solvent and functional without at least extending existing taxes — and no way to get two-thirds support in the Assembly or Senate for any tax measure.

There’s some talk among progressives in Sacramento of using a creative legal strategy to put the extension of temporary sales and car taxes on the ballot with a simple majority vote. In essence, the Legislature can amend any existing law with a simple majority vote — and amending the current tax code to extend the temporary taxes for a year might work. Republicans will howl and sue, and it’s possible that the courts will side with them — but it’s worth a try. At the very least, the Democrats will be highlighting the difference between the two parties, giving the public a clear choice — and putting the GOP legislators on notice that if they won’t help find a solution, they’re going to be irrelevant.

The other option is to start gathering signatures immediately for a ballot initiative, or series of initiatives, that not only extends the temporary taxes but increases taxes on big corporations and the very rich. It’s too bad Brown didn’t start that process months ago; it would have given him immense bargaining clout with the Republicans. As it is, any initiative would have to wait until November; there’s nowhere near enough time to qualify a measure for a special June election.

Still, a lot of the projected state cuts could be delayed until after the voters have a chance to weigh in — and the politics are clearly on the side of progressive taxes. In fact, a poll commissioned by the California Federation of Teachers shows that 78 percent of Californians support a 1 percent increase in income taxes for Californians earning more than $500,000 a year. Even Republicans back the notion by a 60 percent majority.

With Brown leading the charge, raising the money for a signature-gathering effort and a strong campaign shouldn’t be a problem. And if California can start clearing up its red ink with taxes on the very wealthy, it will send a profound message nationwide.

Brown, to his credit, is finally starting to travel around the state and preach his message. He’s hitting Republican districts and trying to get voters to pressure their representatives to work with him. It’s a nice idea, two months too late — and it’s unlikely to turn any legislators around at this point.

On the other hand, the governor, whose popularity is high, would do wonders for the politics of the state and the nation by resuming the old populist stance he took in the early 1990s when he campaigned for president as a foe of corporate power and concentrated wealth. The folks at Calbuzz, the Santa Barbara political blog, put it nicely, suggesting that Brown start channeling the legendary former Wisconsin governor, Bob La Follette.

“As a political matter, it’s time for Jerry Brown to reach for his inner La Follette and start sounding some good, old-fashioned, Wisconsin-style populism. Instead of going after the railroads, as La Follette did, however, Brown should aim at the ultrawealthy, the oil companies, and other greedy corporate interests that have a) allowed the California Republican Party to gridlock the budget process and b) fought to keep special corporate loopholes, including outrageously low property tax rates from Prop. 13.”

That’s how you turn California around.


Editor’s notes



The American environmental movement emerged out of the late 1800s, when a few visionaries like Gifford Pinchot, John Muir, and Teddy Roosevelt decided that America’s mad rush to tame the wilderness and conquer the continent from sea to shining sea had gone too far. They weren’t always in synch, the early conservationists — Muir thought wilderness should be left alone, and Pinchot, the first director of the National Forest Service, thought forests should be managed to improve the lives of people. But the early battles all followed a basic underlying theme: it was about taking land out of private hands and putting it into the public sector.

They didn’t always talk about it that way, but when you follow the great philosophical and political arguments of the day, that’s what it came down to. The mining, logging, and ranching interests (and land speculators, like Pinchot’s father) wanted the federal government to keep its nose out of the great forests, plains, mountains, and deserts. Roosevelt realized that the only way the land would be preserved for future generations was to nationalize it — and he fought mightily to do it. (In 1907, Roosevelt designated 16 million acres of land as national forests minutes before Congress voted to suspend all future acquisitions.)

That’s something the modern environmental movement has lost sight of in the past couple of decades. Some major enviro groups in California supported energy deregulation in the 1990s, arguing that the private sector could do a better job of managing sustainable electricity generation (that worked out well). Respected green leaders like Adam Werbach argue that they can convince giant corporations to make the planet more sustainable. When you hear about solar energy projects at the governmental level these days, the discussion is all about public-private partnerships.

Now, I’m not going to argue that all business is evil, or that there’s no way to combine profit and environmental consciousness. But in the end, economist Robert Reich is correct: private corporations are accountable to their shareholders and the bottom line — not to the public good. That’s how it’s always going to be.

Which means that, in the end, saving the planet is going to be a public-sector responsibility. It’s going to be about strict regulations, about public control of essential resources, about changing the way we think about energy (it’s now a commodity to be sold instead of a public service), and about maintaining and increasing the amount of land that’s permanently owned and operated by the public.

That’s my message for Earth Day 2011.