California’s glut of tax-hike initiatives

Californians seem to have had it with the underfunding of their schools. With tuition rising every semester to close the gap created by legislative budget cuts, the state’s fabled higher education system — the University of California, the California State University and the community colleges — is pricing out tens of thousands of middle-class students. At the K-12 level, the Golden State ranks 42nd among the states in per-pupil spending, and is almost certain to fall even lower if, as seems likely, an additional $10 billion is whacked from state spending.

Confronted with the ongoing decimation of the state’s schools, Californians now say they are willing to raise taxes to save public education. Last month, the USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll found that 64% of state voters favored increasing funding for schools even if it meant raising taxes, while just 32% opposed the idea. A range of private polls showed comparable levels of support. And with the Republicans in the Legislature still adamantly opposed to any tax increases, a number of civic-minded Californians have decided to put tax-hike initiatives on next year’s ballot.

The only problem now is that too many civic-minded Californians have come forth with such initiatives. There are currently three proposals for raising taxes to restore California’s schools being floated by credible backers (that is, backers able to raise enough money to collect enough signatures to make the ballot). And there is a fourth from credible (and very rich) backers that would cut some taxes (chiefly, those on the very rich) and raise others (chiefly, a sales tax on services) to provide more money to schools and other state services.

Putting aside this fourth proposal for a moment, the problem with the three others is simply that there are three of them. If they all appear on the November ballot, they are likely to drag one another down to defeat. Substantively, the three proposals have a good deal of overlap, and their respective authors should be able to hammer out a common proposal that will appear on the ballot as a single initiative.

But a look back at state history reveals numerous episodes in which Californians essentially championing the same cause have put rival measures on the same ballot, only to create a sea of voter confusion that doomed the proposals on election day. In 1996, two liberal unions put opposing universal healthcare initiatives on the same ballot, campaigned against each other and ensured a loss for both sides. In 2006, five tax measures appeared on the ballot; all of them lost. The doctrine of mutually assured destruction looms large in any history of California initiatives.


This year, the three increase-school-funding-through-progressive-taxation measures have lots of overlap. The one unveiled a week ago by Gov. Jerry Brown would raise about $7 billion a year over the next five years, chiefly for the schools, through increasing income taxes on the wealthiest Californians and hiking the state sales tax by half a percentage point. Another initiative, filed by a coalition headed by the California Federation of Teachers, would raise about $6 billion a year, chiefly for schools, exclusively by raising taxes on rich Californians. A third proposal, developed by longtime education activist Molly Munger (co-founder of the Advancement Project and daughter of billionaire Charles Munger, Warren Buffett’s partner at Berkshire Hathaway), would raise about $10 billion annually, chiefly for schools and preschools, by hiking the income taxes of all but the poorest Californians.

Their differences notwithstanding, it really shouldn’t be that hard to winnow the unpassable three down to an enactable one. The measures’ authors need to do that not only to ensure victory but also to defeat that fourth proposal, by Bedouin-esque billionaire investor Nicolas Berggruen (he lives only in hotels) with the support of such fellow billionaires as Eli Broad and Google’s Eric Schmidt, to slash income taxes for the wealthiest Californians and corporations while levying a new sales tax on services to provide more funding for schools. It’s a see-through Trojan horse, but there may be so much money behind it that defeating it and enacting the progressive alternative will require the coordinated efforts of the forces now backing the three anti-plutocratic initiatives.

Californians want to fund their schools, and that should be done through progressive taxation. It would be a travesty, but not all that unusual, if California progressives can’t get it together to make that happen.

Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and an op-ed columnist for the Washington Post.