A few weeks ago, as the Legislature was wrapping up its final business of 2017, the Speaker of the Assembly hailed this year as the most "progressive" in California history. Now, I often do not agree with the Speaker. But in at least one sense, this superlative was accurate: the just-completed legislative session brought the tax burden of Californians to unprecedented heights.
New taxes and fees were slapped onto gasoline, vehicle registration, real estate transactions and even phone bills. While we were successful in defeating a dreadful water tax and yet another income tax hike, the overall growth in revenue – dollars transferred from citizens to government – is staggering, and I believe, exactly the wrong course for our state. And the people of California agree: Republicans, Democrats and Independents alike have registered broad opposition to these burdensome new taxes.
The good news is that citizen opposition is turning into grassroots action. The people of California are starting to fight back. When the Legislature imposed the largest gas tax increase in state history, $52 billion over 10 years, voters responded in two ways: by launching an initiative to repeal the gas tax and by initiating a recall against the Orange County senator who cast the deciding vote. Frustrated with politicians in Sacramento, citizens took matters into their own hands using the tools of direct democracy.
The response by tax-hike supporters is telling: they tried to take these tools of democracy away from Californians, putting up roadblocks to stymie the voter revolt. The Attorney General sought to thwart the gas tax repeal by disguising the fact that it targets one of the most unpopular laws in recent California history, issuing a ballot title that omits the words “gas” and "tax." At the same time, legislators worked to undermine the recall by changing the rules in the middle of the game, passing a law to postpone the election by more than half a year.
In the face of these attacks on direct democracy, Californians turned to the courts to vindicate their constitutional rights. A Sacramento Superior County judge threw out the Attorney General’s title for the gas tax initiative, calling it “misleading, confusing and likely to create prejudice against the proposed measure.” Another court nullified the bill that would have stopped the recall election, although remarkably, the Legislature then passed a second bill to negate the court’s decision, which may be the subject of new litigation.
Grassroots mobilization has also stopped some new taxes from becoming law. As this year’s legislative session drew to a close, a last-minute amendment slipped into a bill about grant disbursements would have levied new taxes on milk, fertilizer and, for the first time ever, water. Citizens organized quickly and emphatically. My office alone received more than 1,000 emails and phone calls. In the end, lawmakers shelved the bill.
This citizen activism was in part made possible by an important ballot measure approved by voters last year. The Legislature Transparency Act requires that a bill be available to the public for 72 hours before it is voted on, putting an end to the long-time practice of ramming bills through before anyone can even read them. At first, leaders in the Legislature tried to carry on with old habits and ignored this demand for public access, passing 89 bills in violation of the 72-hour requirement. But citizens pushed back, and with the support of every majority newspaper editorial board in the state (along with my own caucus in the Legislature), we succeeded in forcing legislative leaders to hold a re-vote on every bill passed unconstitutionally – this time with 72-hours’ notice.
There’s a clear lesson to draw from all of this. Californians are paying attention and are ready to leverage the tools of direct democracy to make their voices heard. That is an encouraging sign, and after the most tax-heavy session in recent history, lawmakers in Sacramento must take notice.
Assemblyman Kevin Kiley represents the 6th Assembly District, which includes parts of El Dorado, Placer, and Sacramento counties.