Michael Smolens:  California Ballot Measures Could Give Republicans Strong Anti-Tax Argument

As California Democrats head into the 2024 election, several things seem to be going their way.

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A measure on the ballot defending same-sex marriage could be an added turnout magnet in a presidential election year that already is expected to bring more Democratic-leaning voters to the polls.

Republicans in Congress, despite their current disarray, continue to ponder further limits or a ban on abortion — another Democratic motivator.

And the Republican Democrats love to hate, Donald Trump, may well be on the ballot again.

But California Republicans may have at least one ace in the hole: a potentially compelling anti-tax argument.

Three tax-related measures are targeted for the ballot, though none actually raises taxes.

A Democratic proposal would lower the voter-approval threshold to 55 percent for local taxes and bonds that now require a two-thirds majority to pass.

measure sponsored by the California Business Roundtable would require all local taxes and bonds to be approved by a two-thirds majority, including fees and charges that currently don’t require a public vote. The proposal also calls for voters to approve all state taxes.

To counter that, Assemblymember Chris Ward, D-San Diego, authored a ballot proposition that would require measures raising the approval threshold to be approved by that same threshold. In other words, the business proposal would need a two-thirds majority.

The two Democratic measures were placed on the ballot by the Legislature, while the business proposal qualified through the signature-gathering initiative process.

The support among Democratic lawmakers for the two legislative measures might suggest broad backing across deep blue California.

But support for — or opposition to — tax increases, among other things, don’t always fall along partisan lines. Majorities of California voters in 2020 sided with the GOP rather than the Democratic leadership position on a handful of ballot measures involving property taxes, rent control, criminal justice, affirmative action and the gig economy.

Whether that dynamic spilled over to candidate races, or whether it would next year, is far from clear.

But it certainly gives credence to what some Republican leaders for years have been saying is needed to improve the party’s fortunes in California: focus on pocketbook, quality of life, and state and local issues that cut across party lines, and avoid the divisive culture wars and national politics.

Easier said than done.

That approach was the Republican hope for the 2021 recall election of Gov. Gavin Newsom. But arguments about homelessness, crime and cost of living lost their steam once right-wing lightning rod Larry Elder jumped into the race to replace Newsom, who made Elder the issue and handily defeated the recall bid.

Plus, there’s no getting away from Trump, who can bolster Republican turnout but, more significantly, energize Democrats.

Some frustrated Republicans complain Democrats and the media overly focus on social issues and Trump. But it’s the conservative-dominated Supreme Court that scuttled a half-century of precedent supporting the constitutionality of abortion by overturning Roe v. Wade. And it’s Republicans pushing limits on LGBTQ rights across the nation.

True, Democrats led by Newsom and Senate president Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, did put a successful measure on the 2022 ballot to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution. A “right to marry” law is planned for the 2024 ballot that would repeal the same-sex marriage ban under Proposition 8, even though the language of the 2008 voter-approved measure was invalidated in court.

But the Supreme Court’s Roe reversal suggests future rulings could override existing abortion protections and reactivate Proposition 8, which remains on the books.

Meanwhile, a move by some Republicans to drop opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage from the California GOP platform was swiftly rejected during the party’s convention last weekend. Granted, not many people pay attention to party platforms, but the short-lived challenge is emblematic of the state party’s struggle to move forward.

Arguments to protect the 1978 landmark tax-cutting initiative Proposition 13 may have lost some resonance over time. But concerns about taxes and economic burdens in general are evergreen political issues.

Democrats contend the high bar to raise taxes is unfair, pointing to numerous measures that were supported by large majorities yet failed the two-thirds test. They contend that has deprived governments of revenue for infrastructure and services desired by the public.

To what degree state and local tax increase proposals will appear on the ballot next year remains to be seen. In April, the governor rejected a state Senate proposal to raise business taxes as part of a budget package.

Democrats and many city and school officials are clearly concerned about the business-backed ballot measure. Last month, Newsom, Atkins and others filed an emergency petition with the state Supreme Court in an effort to keep the proposal off the ballot.

They contend the proposition would illegally revise the state constitution and cripple local government finances, in part because the measure is retroactive to Jan. 1, 2022, and would threaten taxes and fees enacted since then.

Should the current economic discontent roll over into the election year, Republicans may have a strong case for high voting thresholds as a safeguard against over-taxation in already-expensive California, where the cost of housing and gasoline trigger near-constant ire.

Carrying the anti-tax theme a step further, Republicans could point out the business measure also would ban road use charges, also known as vehicle miles traveled fees — which have proved unpopular in some regions.

Such fees are being considered in California and across the country as a replacement for gas tax revenues that are shrinking with the increase of fuel-efficient vehicles and electric vehicles.

A long-range transportation plan drawn up by the San Diego Association of Governments included road charges, but the political fallout jarred supporters.

The SANDAG board, including some Democrats, officially removed the mileage tax from the plan last month.

Click here to read the full article in the San Diego Union Tribune

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