By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. April 8, 2015

After the recent cynical attempts by the Indiana and Arkansas legislatures to authorize LGBT discrimination, watching Republican presidential hopeful Jeb Bush contort his social conservatism to head off competitor Ted Cruz made me wonder why are they in the same political party — and, by extension, fighting for the same presidential nomination?

Not because they belong together, but because the electoral system forces them together — and we voters lose in the process.

The U.S. Electoral system aggressively discriminates against political diversity — from winner-take-all single seat elections, to large legislative districts that increase election costs and favor big-monied interests, to debates that only feature candidates from two political parties, to overly restrictive ballot access laws.

By contrast, a recent British Political Party Leaders Debate included representatives from seven political parties — with a refreshingly diverse and representative range of views. Featured were leaders from three traditional establishment parties — Conservative, Labor and Liberal Democrat, as well as the UK Independence Party (UKIP) which often gets included because of its media-grabbing anti-immigrant rhetoric. But also included were leaders – all women – of three parties not normally invited: the Greens, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru (Wales). These three women most forcefully challenged the crushing economic austerity embraced by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government and the xenophobia of UKIP, while only the Greens raised climate change.

Lack of debate

Our U.S. presidential debates are mostly missing those kinds of voices. This is not be accident. The debates are run by the Commission on Presidential Debates, a non-profit organization run by Democrats and Republicans, and funded by large corporate interests. This exclusion is often mirrored in down ticket races for state wide and state legislative office. The result is an absence of societal debate on critical issues, the effect of which trickles down to us in Santa Monica.

In 2010 after years of statewide structural budget deficits — combined with deep austerity cuts to education and our social safety net, something needed to change. But in that year’s governor’s race, the only candidate talking about progressive tax reform to Proposition 13 — Green Laura Wells — was excluded from the debates. Democratic candidate Jerry Brown said he would put any tax increase before the people, but failed to offer what kind. Republican Meg Whitman only talked about tax cuts.

The result was no electoral mandate. Instead, it came down to post-election maneuvering, with the new Governor and several interest groups each crafting their own measures, then slugging it out until only two were left standing — Brown’s Proposition 30 and Molly Munger’s Proposition 38. The Millionaires Tax — which was polling ahead of the Governor’s, dropped out and folded into Proposition 30, in exchange for making Proposition 30 mildly more progressive – a mixed triumph for the ‘tax the rich’ and Occupy movements, because of the lost opportunity had the Millionaires Tax gone onto the ballot itself.

Proposition 30

In November 2012, Proposition 30 passed and Proposition 38 did not. But while Proposition 30’s stop-gap measures halted the further hemorrhaging of funds for education and other needs, it did little to reverse austerity cuts. Now with Proposition 30 set to sunset in 2018, some organizations like California Calls, a Los Angeles-based coalition of over 30 community-based social justice groups statewide — are looking at how to reform Proposition 13 in a way that preserves its homeowner protections, but also restructures commercial property taxes and closes corporate tax loopholes, so that Proposition 13’s great inequities and the resultant under-funding of public services are addressed.

However other state leaders — saying the political environment is not ‘ripe’ to reform Proposition 13 — are advocating taking the easy way out and simply recommending extending Proposition 30 — which was sold to voters in 2012 as a one-time, temporary fix.

Top two elections problem

Who is to blame for the ‘unripe’ political environment? Not only was Wells excluded in 2010, but since then, corporate California funded the propaganda campaign to sell us Proposition 14 — the Top Two primary, which eliminates all but two voices from the general election ballot in all state and federal races (except president). The result was that in 2014, the two candidates who campaigned on progressive tax reform and addressing poverty — Green (and Los Angeles Poet Laureate) Luis Rodriguez and anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan (Peace and Freedom Party) were not even on the November ballot. Not only did this lack of choice fail to inspire voters (California had the largest drop in voter turnout of any state in the November 2014 election, compared to November 2010 ), but discussion of progressive tax reform was entirely absent from the fall campaign.

Land Value Tax

One such progressive reform is to establish a land value tax that captures the socially-created value of land and returns it to society by raising the tax upon land, while simultaneously rewarding the property owner who adds value by lowering the taxes upon improvements.

Socially created value can be as the result of public investment — like a new park going in across the street, or a new light rail line crossing through a city — like the Expo Line in Santa Monica. While local neighborhood activists are rightfully concerned about the growing gentrification and displacement of families in the Pico and Mid-Cities neighborhoods occurring in anticipation of Expo’s arrival, the zoning and financial tools that cities have to confront such dynamics are limited.

What a statewide land value tax could do in Santa Monica is capture the socially-created increase in property values along the Expo line corridor and return that money to Santa Monica to purchase, rehabilitate and deed-restrict existing affordable housing – and preserve existing residents in the process. Similarly, such funds could be available to subsidize housing proposed projects in the downtown and Bergamot Plan areas, to increase their affordability beyond what the developer could pencil on their own.

In a healthy multi-party democracy, such ideas would already be on the table and part of our popular debate — and Santa Monica could be lobbying to ensure that Proposition 13 reform would be on the 2018 ballot in a way that would help our community.

The next time you hear about candidates from smaller parties being excluded from debates, remember that it’s not the candidates’ and parties’ voices that are being excluded. It’s your own.

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004). He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein

Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press, that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.


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