Fiscal prudence a smokescreen to state's tax issues 

click to enlarge Flanked by Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, left, and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, right, Gov. Jerry Brown gives his State of the State address at the Capitol in Sacramento Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013. Brown delivered a State of the State address that laid out the legacy-building ideas he will work on during the second part of his term, including K-12 education reform, high-speed rail and the largest upgrade to the state's water-delivery system in decades. - AP PHOTO/THE SACRAMENTO BEE, HECTOR AMEZCUA
  • AP Photo/The Sacramento Bee, Hector Amezcua
  • Flanked by Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, left, and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, right, Gov. Jerry Brown gives his State of the State address at the Capitol in Sacramento Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013. Brown delivered a State of the State address that laid out the legacy-building ideas he will work on during the second part of his term, including K-12 education reform, high-speed rail and the largest upgrade to the state's water-delivery system in decades.

It was heartening to hear Gov. Jerry Brown talk about fiscal prudence at his State of the State speech Thursday. Lawmakers, he said, must be committed to “living within our means and not spending what we don’t have.” No standing ovation for that one.

Later, he singled out higher education for protection, insisting, “Tuition increases are not the answer. I will not let the students become the default financiers of our colleges and universities.”

Of course tuition increases are not the answer. Mostly because Brown toured college campuses last year, drumming up support for Proposition 30’s tax increases by promising no tuition increases. 

“Please don’t make me look bad, y’all,” might have been a more accurate plea.

At any rate, more tax increases for education may still be in the cards. Presently, one group is gathering signatures for a ballot measure to raise taxes on gasoline for public higher education. Another that would raise the cigarette tax for the same purpose is pending approval by the state attorney general.

Whether either of these measures can get the more than 800,000 signatures needed to appear on the next statewide ballot in November 2014 is anyone’s guess. Seems to me a special tax on Uggs and fantasy football would enjoy widespread support, but I digress.

What will likely make the ballot is a proposal by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, that would lower the threshold needed for local governments to pass parcel taxes for education from two-thirds to 55 percent.

According to a 2007 study by researchers William Duncombe and John Yinger, California is the only state in the union that allows localities to pay for education this way.

Any why do we have this ability in California? Proposition 13!

That’s right, prior to the codified “taxpayer’s revolt,” parcel taxes were unconstitutional; property value had to be the basis for taxation. 

A parcel tax is unique in that it assesses the same amount per parcel, regardless of the value of the property. But right there in Prop. 13 was permission for a non- ad valorem tax (one not based on value) so long as there was a two-thirds vote.

So there you have it. Fiscal prudence from Gov. Moonbeam and new taxes from an anti-tax measure. Don’t believe the hype.

“Just as critical as unemployment is inflation, the cruelest tax of all. Again, major initiatives are required at the national level. But nothing prevents us from doing what we can. And we do that first by keeping the burden of state taxation at a level no higher than it is today.” — Gov. Jerry Brown, in his 1976 State of the State speech.

Melissa Griffin’s column runs each Thursday and Sunday. She also appears Mondays in “Mornings with Melissa” at  6:45 a.m. on KPIX (Ch. 5). Email her at mgriffin@sfexaminer.com.

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