Room for Two Tax Initiatives? Burton Thinks So

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NOTE: This posting has been modified to reflect that the proposed initiative only guarantees one-third of the oil tax revenue for higher education. The bulk of the revenues would be deposited back into the state's general fund.

Getty/David Paul Morris

One thing that's safe to say about John Burton, the veteran legislator who now chairs the California Democratic Party: he doesn't ask for permission before he acts.

And so on Tuesday, while Governor Jerry Brown was telling reporters that he hopes to clear the field of other tax initiatives aiming for the November ballot, Burton was filing a tax initiative of his own -- an oil severance tax to help fund higher education.

"I don't believe our [initiative] detracts in any way" from Brown's tax proposal, said Burton in a brief phone interview.

The idea of a tax on oil production in California isn't new. Not only has it been bandied about a lot in the last couple of years, but Burton points out that similar proposals were floated both by himself in the 1970s and by the late Gov. Pat Brown in 1959.

Burton's proposal (PDF) is pretty straightforward, and would assess a 12.5% tax per barrel of oil, with exceptions made for low-producing oil wells. But only one-third of the tax revenues would be earmarked for for higher education (including community colleges); the remainder going back in the state's general fund, which would ostensibly float all boats -- including the general fund's contribution to colleges and universities. For the money specifically earmarked, the Burton initiative would establish a new oversight committee for higher education that would have a say in doling out the revenues.

"It's a statement of what we want to do," says Burton, who admits that the "we" is pretty much -- for now -- limited to him. However, the state Democratic Party has endorsed a so-called oil severance tax.

Burton, who turns 79 tomorrow, is a cagey politician who got tongues wagging last week with his... pointed... comments in a segment on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show." He says he didn't consult with Governor Brown on the initiative, but would be happy to talk about it with his fellow Democrat.

Burton says that while his proposal -- if it moves forward -- may have to be helped along financially by some of the same political players as the Brown income/sales tax initiative, any crossover would come from donors who had the resources to contribute to both. Otherwise, Burton says, a donor will undoubtedly line up with the governor.

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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.
  • Ash Roughani

    More lockboxes.  Awesome.

    All we’re doing is continuing the vicious cycle of adding more layers of complexity to our governance structure, which causes politicians to say that their hands are tied; which allows Dan Walters to write the same damn column every week about the state being ungovernable; and, declining trust in government. Yes, we need to invest in higher ed.  But this is one of the worst ways of going about it.  And we wonder why voters don’t understand tradeoffs?  Where is the leadership?Let’s restore some trust in government before we start talking about more revenue.

  • Anonymous

    Sounds like Torrico’s AB 656. What a crappy idea.

  • Anonymous

    Burton is spot on here! One has only to read “Oil’s Endless Bid” (D. Dicker), the “Vega Factor: Oil Volatility and the Next Global Crisis” (Kent Moors), trade oil commodities on the stock market (buy the rumor on quarterly profits and sell the news), and drive a car to viscerally experience what he’s on to here. While we’re struggling with depression, big oil is buying out small oil en mass, and there’s a giant sucking sound coming from individual land owners in the the bakken shale oil projects in the midwest.  Huge profits!  California is merely a link to the single source straw.  Yes, we need jobs to relieve our depression – but we ought naught be raped seeking them. Take a moment to Google “oil + lobby” and you have a brief notion of what we’re up against as a consumer.  Where’s the link to support this initiative???  I’m in!

  • Moe Hong

    Well, it’s a smaller tax than most states charge. Alaska, for instance, charges almost 19.5%, right? And the gulf states frequently charge in the neighborhood of 20%, although I understand those slide up and down on a regular basis.

    I’ve wondered why we didn’t do this 50 years ago when Brown Sr. floated it… Oh yeah, because one of the parties had several ex-oil executives sitting in elected office. I forgot.

    California can finally join the 10 largest oil producing countries in the world in charging a true severance tax on oil.

  • Moe Hong

    Seems to work well in 14 other states.

  • Ash Roughani

    I’m not against the tax, I’m against ballot box budgeting:

  • B Cayenne Bird

     Jerry Brown is the person most responsible for California’s current fiscal and humanitarian crisis. He is the person who promoted and caused to pass the determinate sentencing laws that overfilled the prisons and jails, a fact that he admitted to during his campaign. Brown is also the person who gave the prison guard’s raises while firing 22,000 teachers and cutting human services and education. He is building $7 billion in new prisons which will cost billions more per year to operate. We, the people, need to recall him. Brown took $1.8 mil from CCPOA, the prison guard’s union and Burton took almost $1 million from them while he was in office. Any increased taxes will not go to education, it will go to expansion of our corrupt police state and prisons and jails. Please support the campaign, Liberals To Recall Jerry Brown,