The Crowding Field of 2012 Tax Initiatives

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California voters have long had a reputation as anti-tax, a reputation that explains why so many proposals either fizzle before ever making it to the ballot... or are roundly rejected on Election Day.

But the November 2012 ballot appears poised to put that theory to the test, with an ever growing number of initiatives designed to raise revenues to pay for deficit-shrunk government services.

Two distinct proposals both popped up today, following the recent buzz over a $10 billion tax proposal crafted by a group of prominent Californians. And they proceed an expected revenue proposal from Governor Jerry Brown, one which everyone assumes will be unveiled in the very near future.

The first of the new initiatives filed with the Attorney General's office for formal title and summary is a tax increase earmarked exclusively for K-12 schools. Its proponent is attorney Molly Munger, a Californian probably most notable for her financial pedigree. Her father, Charles Munger, is a longtime top associate of billionaire financier Warren Buffett; her brother, Charles Munger, Jr., is best known for bankrolling the two successful initiatives that wrested redistricting away from the Legislature.

"California once had schools that were considered the best in the nation," Ms. Munger said in a emailed statement. "If we all join together to invest more resources in our children and classrooms, we can once again make California schools great."

The Munger initiative is relatively straightforward. It imposes a sliding scale income tax hike, with the raw dollar amount increasing with a tax filer's post-deductions income. The campaign's website claims that it would amount to $428 for a couple whose AGI is $75,000, while hitting a family with a $1.5 million AGI for an additional $27,266.

The tax would expire after 12 years, and the resulting dollars would be sent directly to local schools (i.e., not touchable by Sacramento lawmakers) with rules on distributing the money equally "on a per pupil basis to all local public school sites" including charter schools. Backers estimate the annual take would be $10 billion; that would be a significant boost to school budgets that have been cut statewide in recent years.

A separate initiative has also been filed seeking to raise income taxes (via a different formula), with the money being used (PDF) to make the University of California and California State University campuses fee/tuition-free for state residents.

Then there's the very different -- and potentially explosive -- tax initiative to take on California's existing property tax structure, through amending the legendary Proposition 13. But the initiative (PDF) does so in a way that looks custom made for a political campaign.

The proposal, filed by attorney Margaret Prinzing, would allow "nonresidential real property" to be assessed using its "fair market value" starting in 2014. County tax assessors would revalue the property at least every three years.

It exempts both commercial agricultural land and both single family and multi-family residences. The initiative would also, starting in 2016, "the first $1 million of tangible personal property," which the proposal says will protect small businesses from the property tax hike.

As a sweetener to the average homeowner, the initiative would double the homeowner tax break to $14,000 and would boost the tax break offered to renters. "Homeowners' property tax exemptions have remained the same since 1968," says the initiative's preamble, "with no adjustment for inflation."

The real question: who's behind the initiative? Prinzing is a Bay Area based election law attorney whose firm's clients have included a number of Democratically-aligned groups, from environmental organizations to labor unions. So far, though, none of the prominent groups say they are on board.

Prinzing, in a very brief phone chat, said she's "not authorized" to say on whose behalf the initiative was filed.

Keep in mind that these are just the tax initiatives unveiled this week.

A slew of other tax initiatives have been formally filed, seeking to tax everything from barrels of oil to prescription drugs to newly legalized marijuana to public employees to help pay for their pensions. In some cases, there are multiple measures seeking to tax the same activities or groups of people.

It's important to remember that, while provocative, the vast majority of these proposals will fail to make the ballot. Most initiatives, regardless of subject matter, don't qualify because gathering hundreds of thousands of signatures takes money, a well-oiled organization, or both.

But several of these proposals do seem to meet that standard, which begs the question: if they all make it to the November ballot, does the cacophony and cumulative tax burden lead voters to just say no?

And even if only one or two make it to the ballot, can a tax-hike-campaign win in a sluggish (at best) economic climate? After all, public polls continue to proclaim that while voters want vital government services protected, they're less than convinced they need to pay more in taxes to make that happen.

Update 5:01 p.m. It's been pointed out to me that the tax initiative amending the Prop 13 property tax rules is virtually identical to one submitted by the same law firm in 2009 (PDF). That initiative, in the 2009 analysis by the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office, was estimated to be worth a net gain to the state's general fund of about $4 billion a year.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.
  • Guest

    Munger is not post at the AG’s website yet —- ??

  • John Myers, KQED

    You’re right, I don’t see it there, either. There’s often a lag time between the actual filing and the appearance of the initiative on the AG’s site…

  • Mikeandpollyr