We’ve seen this before. An ostensibly conservative legislator sells out California taxpayers by voting for a massive tax increase and everyone is left dumbfounded wondering how could this possibly happen. Later, maybe months or even years, the official gets a cushy, high paying appointment on some worthless board or commission. For those who believe that these deals aren’t cut way at the time of the offending vote, we’ve got some swampland in Florida to sell you.
Let’s review. As part of the budget deal of 2009, the California Legislature slammed taxpayers with the largest tax increase ever enacted by any statehouse in the history of America — $12 billion. Huge increases in the state’s income tax, sales tax and the car tax hit ordinary California citizens at the worst possible time. But, in order to enact this tax increase, three Republican votes were needed in both the California Assembly and Senate. Since virtually all Republicans had signed a “no-tax” pledge, taxpayer activists thought there was a sufficient cushion to prevent the tax increase from going forward.
But the deal went through with exactly three Republican votes in each house — the bare minimum to get the job done. In the Senate, the votes came from Abel Maldonado (no surprise there as he openly sold out for placing the Open Primary measure on the ballot), Dave Cogdill (big surprise as he was a staunch conservative) and Roy Ashburn (also a surprise given the conservative bent of his district). In the Assembly, the Republican votes came from Roger Niello of Sacramento (but Niello had never signed the pledge), Assemblyman Mike Villines (huge surprise) and Anthony Adams, who had run for office as a staunch fiscal conservative and had signed the no-tax pledge.
The tax increases approved by the Legislature were imposed immediately and had a devastating effect on California’s economy. Moreover, hanging over the heads of California taxpayers was another $16 billion in tax increases — basically extending the already imposed tax increases — for an additional length of time. But the extension of these tax increases was put before the voters in May of 2009 and, by now, California voters had had enough. Proposition 1A was defeated by a 2-1 margin.
The track record of those who betray taxpayers is not good. Both Villines and Maldonado ran for statewide office and lost. Niello ran for the California Senate but was bludgeoned by his main opponent, Ted Gaines, who used Niello’s anti-taxpayer vote to great advantage in a very conservative district. Roy Ashburn termed out and his political career is over. Anthony Adams was the target of a recall effort that almost qualified and was vilified by talk radio throughout Southern California. Although not termed out, he chose not to run for reelection realizing that, except for close relatives, he wouldn’t be getting any votes. (And even the close relatives were in doubt).
Regrettably, it appears that at least some of the votes for the budget deal were purchased with promises of appointments to the myriad of worthless boards and commissions for which California is so famous. In the case of Anthony Adams, who has no experience in the field of corrections, he received one of the juiciest plums of all: A spot on the California Board of Parole Hearings, which pays over $111,000 per year. Along with benefits, including medical and retirement, the value of this payoff is well in excess of the salary alone. Villines, too, got an appointment to a lesser board (paying “only” $40,000 annually).
For taxpayers, such betrayals are very painful. But there are several actions citizens can take to minimize the risks of this happening in the future. First, voters should base their support more on actions than promises. Although not foolproof, voting for candidates with a proven track record of opposing tax increases helps. Second, for all the criticism of “pledges,” we now know they can be very helpful. Any candidate unwilling to sign a “no new tax” pledge should be immediately suspect. Third, any legislator who violates his promise to his constituency must not get a free pass. Activists from taxpayer groups, conservative organizations and the Tea Party movement must play the role of enforcers to ensure that anyone who supports tax hikes pays with the price of their very political careers. For those who believe this is distasteful, get over it. This isn’t personal. It’s business.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.