Now that Republicans’ scheme to ruin health care has collapsed, they’re on to slash taxes, stoke a crisis of government austerity and justify further cuts to anything but the military. They have spent the last 40 years so successfully slagging taxes that Democrats quaver before them. In California, we also have a hard time with taxes. This two-thirds majority isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
In April, the Legislature passed an important transportation bill on a two-thirds vote, providing good stuff like improved roads and transit. It also funded said good stuff by raising the gas tax and vehicle license fee. Democratic Sen. Josh Newman from Fullerton now faces a “No on the Gas Tax” recall organized by a right-wing radio host. The recall threat has scared the Democrats off even more aggressive, new revenue measures.
This was the first of three two-thirds votes this session, and, surprisingly, none of them were easy. There was the vote to extend the cap-and-trade program to mitigate carbon emissions in a way that the planet probably will find inadequate. And there was the package of housing bills that included a real estate filing fee to fund affordable housing. All three required arm-twisting and horse-trading and sausage-making and outside pressure to get to two-thirds.
The political difficulty of mustering votes for tax increases would be understandable if they were for controversial projects — like a monument to Khloe Kardashian — but they weren’t.
There are too many moderate Democrats in Sacramento who don’t want to upset Corporate America or the rich by espousing any kind of redistributive politics. But we all created this convoluted tax policy.
We load the budget with ballot measures requiring supermajorities to pass new revenue, then act indignant when legislators won’t legislate. We create a higher threshold to pass tax increases for a specific purpose, then attack tax increases that need a majority for lacking a dedicated purpose. We pass set-asides to fund worthy things, but when they cut other worthy things, we have an escalation of set-asides. We pass temporary tax cuts that eventually become permanent when their expiration is portrayed as a tax increase.
Because we have allowed taxes to become ballot-box poison, politicians are left with no choice but to fund stuff we demand through debt (bonds) or fees, leading to contortions around the nexus of the fee to the thing it offsets to raise money without appearing to do so.
Everyone loves taxes paid by someone else, so we create dumb taxes that don’t actually fund what we need them to. The top 1 percent has hijacked democracy with battalions of lobbyists to rewrite the tax code to favor them. Fixing that could fund our needs. At the same time, there are plenty of other regressive taxes, like Proposition 13 and the mortgage interest deduction, which disproportionately benefit richer people with more valuable homes.
It’s so dumb.
We all depend on a functioning government. We have big problems of inequality, climate change, refugees, public health, homelessness, an aging population, child care, education, transit, housing and so on. We could keep blowing metaphorical smoke up our bungholes and let politicians pretend they’re leading decisively without giving them the money to do it. Or we could meet the problems at the scale that is called for: bigger government and more spending. A lot more.
I love taxes because I use public schools, transit and roads and depend on an aggressive regulatory system to keep my water clean and my power on. I want public health officials to contain and prevent outbreaks of infection disease. Governance. Society.
Taxes are sexy, and we need lots of them. As voters, we need to reassure politicians that we support more taxes to solve our big problems. Politicians should be as brave about raising taxes as they are about vacuous grandstanding. Read my lips: new taxes.
Nato Green is a San Francisco-based comedian and union activist. He’ll be talking over “Indecent Proposal” at the Alamo Drafthouse on Monday with Natasha Muse, and @natogreen.