- The Washington Times - Monday, November 22, 2010



LOS ANGELES | Life is not easy out there for a liberal, or a progressive or an elitist or whatever liberals are calling themselves this morning. Particularly in California, where dreamy Democrats feel cozy and safe, supping on lotus, unmolested by reality.

California’s Proposition 26, adopted by a vote of 53 percent to 47 percent — not a landslide but not a squeaker — severely restricts the ability of city, county and state governments to tell whoppers about taxes. Specifically, it tells the bureaucrats they can no longer impose a tax and call it something vague and ambiguous, like a “user fee.” They can no longer get around a state constitutional requirement that taxes must be approved by a two-thirds majority vote or by public referendum.

There’s a mad scramble in the wood-paneled boardrooms at city halls from Chula Vista in the south to Oregon in the north to deal with the most draconian attempt to stifle the runaway growth of government since Howard Jarvis‘ Proposition 13 cut property taxes by 57 percent three decades ago.

This year’s Prop 26, in addition to severely crimping the bloated schemes of the tax men, attempts to teach lessons in plain English to those who need them most. Echoing Voltaire’s observation that “one great use of words is to hide our thoughts,” Prop 26 makes it more difficult to call a tax a user fee — which can be endorsed by a mere majority. “[Prop 26] clarifies what is a tax and what is a fee,” says the chief executive of the California Chamber of Commerce, the biggest contributor to the campaign to enact Prop 26. “California just got a lot harder to govern,” complains the California director of the Sierra Club. Translation: Californians just got a lot harder to punish and abuse in the name of “good government.”

California governments have chased a lot of business out of the state with “user fees” tacked onto high taxes, and the “good government” advocates of more spending and higher taxes, many of them clutching tightly to college diplomas as evidence of their intelligence, wit and judgment, still can’t figure out why. The call-a-tax-a-tax initiative is aimed at government abuse not only of big business but at punishment of small business as well. The government in Sacramento lusts to impose a surcharge on every barrel of oil and a “cap-and-trade” “fee” on greenhouse gases. The liberals/progressives are determined to paint the state a deep, deep shade of green, whether it actually cleans up anything or not.

But not just on industry. User fees are aimed at the poor as well as the wealthy, ranging from new taxes on cigarettes to pay for trash pickups and on new levies on booze to pay for schools and law enforcement. Los Angeles County wants to ban plastic grocery bags and impose a 10-cent tax on paper bags. You could buy all the groceries, you want, but to avoid the tax, you could leave the groceries at the store. Too bad for the bureaucrats at Los Angeles City Hall, Prop 26 mandates that these user taxes must be called by their rightful name and subject to a two-thirds supermajority.

The contentious campaign for Prop 26 and the eventual approval by California voters was eerily similar to the Jarvis campaign to slash taxes on homes in 1973. Jarvis, who died in 1986, was derided by Time magazine as “surly” and “arrogant” and “when the mikes were turned off, he just raised his voice so that you never knew the microphone was dead. Many times they had to call the sergeant-at-arms to persuade him to sit down.”

But Jarvis rarely sat down and gave as good as he got. He didn’t listen to the timid marketing men who urged him to soften his language, and he described the cocktail-party Republicans in opposition as “the stupidest people in the world except for businessmen, who have a genius for stupidity.” The oh-so-proper League of Women Voters, which led the prissy opposition, was “a bunch of nosy broads who front for the big spenders.” The tax issue, he said, “is Armageddon, a war of machetes. They’re going to cut off our heads, or we’re going to cut off theirs.”

On election night, after he had won 70 percent of the votes, he gloated that “now we know how it felt when they dumped English tea into Boston Harbor.” Nov. 2 of this year proved again that tea, even in blue-green California, can be 90-proof stuff.

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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