Tim Rutten: It’s time to pass California tax hikes legislatively


It’s sometimes sobering to see your situation through the discerning eyes of another.

That’s certainly the case with the Economist’s appraisal of politics’ critical contribution to California’s never-ending budget crisis. The facts cited by the magazine’s Andreas Kluth are well known to even casual students of state government, but the context and perspective are bracing — and suggest both a short- and long-term way out of the morass. The former ought to begin with Gov. Jerry Brown walking away from his campaign promise to submit any tax increase to a popular vote.

The Economist correctly labels this state as “an experiment in extreme democracy gone wrong.” The problem, of course, is our reckless recourse to direct democracy and there the record is plain: In the 1960s, voters were asked to decide on just nine ballot propositions; in the ‘70s, 22; in the ‘80s, 46; in the ‘90s, 61; and, in the decade just completed, an astonishing 74. Some of these were products of passing popular enthusiasms; many simply were the tools of special interests. Over roughly that same period, California’s credit rating has fallen from a flawless AAA to the worst among the 50 states.

“California’s democracy is not at all like America’s, as conceived by founders such as James Madison,” the Economist writes. “The federal constitution is based on checks and balances within and among three and only three branches of government — executive, legislative and judicial. That is because Madison feared that popular ‘passions’ would undo the republic, that majorities might ‘tyrannize’ minorities, and that ‘minority factions’ (i.e., special interests) would take over the system. America’s was therefore to be a representative, not a direct, democracy. Pure democracies ‘have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention,’ Madison wrote.”


That’s an apt description of contemporary California, which grafted direct democracy onto the American system during the Progressive era.

“For much of the 20th century the resulting governance structure did no harm because voter initiatives were used sparingly,” the Economist notes. “But then, starting in 1978, the culture and system mutated. Brown was governor when Californians passed Proposition 13, ostensibly an anti-tax measure but in reality a fundamental constitutional change with vast, and mostly unforeseen, consequences. It led to hundreds of ballot measures as citizens increasingly legislated directly and in tense competition with their own representatives.”

The governmental consequences of that competition left Sacramento “unable to respond to external shocks such as the current economic crisis. This story is of global interest, for California has inadvertently made itself a negative model for other democracies.”

If it comes — and that’s by no means a certainty — reform will entail a long and arduous climb out of a very deep hole. In the meantime, the governor and the Democrats’ legislative majority need to shake themselves free of the direct democracy delusion, and that process begins with abandoning efforts to put budget-balancing tax extensions before the voters, as then-candidate Brown promised. No one can argue that the governor has not made a good-faith effort to keep that promise.

When Brown made his promise — a pandering nod to the direct democracy fallacy — he could not have anticipated that he’d be totally blocked by the minority party, whose philosophy of government has been overwhelmingly rejected by California’s voters. Those same legislators can be counted on to obstruct a legislative approach, but Brown has formidable political tools and the proven willingness to use them.

In the meantime, a Times/USC Dornsife Poll released Sunday found that more than half the state’s voters agree with Brown’s approach to the fiscal crisis and want to balance the budget with a combination of painful spending cuts and moderate tax increases. Barely 3 in 10 backed the plan advanced by the Republican legislators to balance the budget by cutting $14 billion more than Brown already has proposed — reductions that would leave education and the already badly frayed social safety net in ruins.


One of the realities our long infatuation with direct democracy has obscured is the fact that to govern is to choose. Jerry Brown now needs to decide between an ill-advised campaign promise and the common good of all Californians. If the choice doesn’t seem clear, we all ought to take a hard look in the mirror.