California’s Taxpayer Protection and Government Accountability Act gives voters the final approval on future taxes and fees imposed by state and local governments. The measure gathered nearly one million signatures and has qualified for the November 5 ballot. Gov. Gavin Newsom and former governor Jerry Brown want the state supreme court to take the measure off the ballot, and it’s easy to see why.
The Act requires voter approval for all new taxes passed by the legislature and two-thirds voter approval for all new special tax increases. The Act also requires clear definitions of what is a tax or a fee, along with truthful descriptions of new tax proposals. Before any tax or fee is enacted, politicians must clearly outline how the revenues would be spent, and so on.
Gov. Newsom contends that the measure is a constitutional revision, rather than a constitutional amendment, and would “effectively block the state’s ability to quickly respond to major challenges.” Proponents of the measure called the “revision” argument weak and in an amicus brief, Republicans decried a “blatantly undemocratic attempt to disenfranchise voters by removing a voter-qualified initiative from the ballot.” The battle has now been joined by former governor Jerry Brown, who at age 85 needs some updating.
In 1974, Gov. Brown showcased his “simple lifestyle” credentials by rejecting the new governor’s mansion and moving into an apartment near the state Capitol. In 2015, Brown returned to the refurbished original governor’s mansion. After four terms in office, with a net worth of an estimated $12 million, Brown occupies a2,500-acre estate in Colusa County.
Brown’s January 31 amicus brief makes the same argument as Gov. Newsom, that the measure is a constitutional revision rather than an amendment, basically a distinction without a difference. Surprisingly, the former governor mentions the 1978 Proposition 13, the People’s Initiative to Limit Property Taxation, which limited property tax increases and required a two-thirds vote of the legislature to increase non-property taxes.
The state supreme court ruled that Proposition 13 “was both modest and does not change our basic governmental plan.” According to Brown, a Yale law alum, the Taxpayer Protection and Accountability Act, “turns our governmental plan inside out,” and more. The measure “echoes a 1950s film noir in which a police officer tells a crowd, ‘there’s nothing to see, move along,’ when the police officer in fact is standing in front of a corpse—in this instance (to apply the metaphor to the facts), the corpse of our State Government.” That is hard to top, but the former governor wasn’t done.
“Governor Brown’s many years of service in state and local government,” the brief claims, “have given him an unprecedented understanding of how government functions and a deep interest in ensuring that our state and local government entities continue to serve the public effectively.”
Brown cites his four terms as governor and stints as California’s Attorney General, Secretary of State, and mayor of Oakland. The brief even notes that Brown “served as a law clerk to Justice Mathew Tobriner of this Court from 1964 to 1965,” but leaves out some other realities.
In 1976, 1980, and 1992, Jerry Brown mounted presidential bids “all of which fell short of making him a true contender for the White House,” according to veteran California commentator Dan Walters. In 1982, Brown also lost a Senate race to Pete Wilson, Republican mayor of San Diego.
Gov. Brown called Proposition 13 a “rip-off” and denounced the measure in apocalyptic terms. After a full 64.79 percent of voters approved the measure, Brown proclaimed himself a “born-again tax cutter,” which was never true. On Brown’s watch, California became one of the highest-tax states, with an onerous regulatory regime and little accountability.
Jerry Brown helped transform the Golden State from a place people wanted to live to a place people want to leave. The recurring governor, with “unprecedented understanding” of government, now targets the already qualified Taxpayer Protection and Accountability Act. The reason should be clear to all but the willfully blind.
Proposition 13, the People’s Initiative to Limit Property Taxation, inspired tax reform across the country. Brown and Newsom fear that the Taxpayer Protection and Accountability Act would do the same.
Jerry Brown is a graduate of UC Berkeley, where the outcry was once “power to the people.” Brown and Gov. Newsom now seek to take power from the people. Replies to the amicus briefs are due on February 14 and the case must be decided before June 27, the deadline to place initiatives on the November 5 ballot.
This article was also published in The American Spectator