Near the end of the classic 1978 movie “Animal House” we see Kevin Bacon, wearing his ROTC uniform, wildly flailing his arms and screeching, “Remain calm, all is well,” as panicking parade attendees run about in every direction and back again in total confusion.
Were the writers and director John Landis channeling Nostradamus? The scene certainly appears to presage California initiative politics in 2012.
Thanks to the August, dead-of-the-night, last minute passage of a bill that prohibits initiatives from appearing on primary ballots — usually in June — the Legislature guaranteed a free-for-all for possibly a dozen or more ballot measures for the upcoming November 2012 ballot.
When the governor signed this legislation, he reversed a position he had taken as attorney general back in the early 1970s when he pioneered the placing of initiative measures on the primary ballot as well as the general election ballot, which served to make it easier for voters to digest the issues by allowing them take on propositions in two bites instead of one.
The motive for the change was painfully transparent. In addition to ensuring that a specific initiative despised by government union bosses would not appear in June of 2012, campaign consultants advised the politicians that measures to increase taxes, which they favor, would fare better in November. This is because a presidential election is more likely to turn out a larger group of “low information voters,” those who are less well informed and are more easily influenced by slick advertising campaigns.
So let’s have a look at the pandemonium we could well face on one ballot:
• A handful of billionaires and two failed governors — Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger — want to extend sales taxes to services, a tax increase of $10 billion.
• Molly Munger — the daughter of Charles Munger, Warren Buffet’s chief business partner — wants a sliding scale increase in income taxes to raise $10 billion a year.
• Hedge fund manager Tom Steyer would indirectly boost taxes on out-of-state corporations doing business in California by changing the way their taxable incomes are calculated to the tune of about $1.1 billion a year.
• Gov. Brown and his union allies are backing a sales tax hike on everyone and income tax surcharge on the affluent to raise about $7 billion a year.
• The California Federation of Teachers is backing their own initiative to place a surcharge on millionaires.
• An initiative to split the property tax roll and increase taxes on businesses has been filed.
• A measure to impose $3 billion oil severance tax is already being circulated.
• Voters will be confronted with a $11.1 billion water bond.
• A spending limit initiative — that will not be liked by those backing the preceding tax increase measures — has just been filed and will likely qualify for November.
• Already qualified is a measure that would limit the influence of special interest money in politics.
There are a number of additional measures that could appear — 40 measures are pending with the attorney general, while 31 are in circulation — from one that would totally reorganize the structure of the state Legislature to one requiring California officials to engage in cooperative enforcement of federal immigration law. There is even the potential for a ballot proposition that would essentially grant state amnesty to illegal immigrants.
Although some of these measures are likely to fall by the wayside in the qualification process, there remains the very real possibility that voters will be run over by a hoard of complex issues. If they throw up their hands and vote no on everything, the Sacramento elite, who don’t like allowing citizens to make decisions anyway, will use the failure of their pet measures to attack the right of the people to use the initiative process, and urge that all powers be vested in their bought-and-paid-for legislators. Of course, if the people do reject everything the Sacramento schemers put on the ballot, the latter will have only themselves to blame. By insisting that all measures be crammed into one ballot, they make it more challenging for thoughtful voters to make informed decisions.
On the other hand, maybe when voters say no, especially on tax increases, they know exactly what they are doing. It is much more likely that it is the politicians, rather than the voters, who are out of control.
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.