Proposition 13 is the original victim of ‘fake news’

prop 13As Proposition 13 approaches its 39th birthday, it is still subject to the same dishonest attacks in the media that were used against it when it was on the ballot in 1978. Proposition 13 was one of the first victims of “fake news.”

“The bigwigs in labor and business went all out to defeat 13,” said its principle author, Howard Jarvis. “They tried to outdo one another in issuing doomsday prophecies about what passage of 13 would mean.” The media slavishly supported the exaggerated and dishonest claims, often endorsing them through editorials and by giving prominent placement to negative stories on the tax revolt.

The politicians, including Gov. Jerry Brown, and government agencies from top to bottom weighed in. Here is a typical example: Before the election, Alameda County Transit told the public that passage of Prop. 13 would result in the termination of 80 percent of its 2,000 employees. Two months later, the Fremont-Newark Argus reported on the aftermath of the passage of Proposition 13, “To date, no one in the district has been laid off and officials now believe there will be no massive layoffs.” The paper added that three local fire districts that anticipated losing one-half to three-fourths of its staff, had not lost a single firefighter to Prop. 13.

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Politicians Failing to Spend Our Money to Fix Roads

los-angeles-freewaysConsider this argument from Sacramento politicians: California’s roads, freeways and bridges are crumbling. Our spending on transportation is so seriously inadequate that a gas tax increase and other taxes are desperately needed to save California from ruin.

If this sounds like the shrill arguments we are currently hearing to support an increase in California’s gas tax by another 12 cents a gallon and a hike in the car tax by nearly $40, you’re only half right. Those with long memories will recall that these were the identical arguments made in 1990 by Gov. George Deukmejian and transportation interests urging the passage of Proposition 111, a 9 cents-a-gallon tax increase combined with a 55 percent increase in truck weight fees.

Demonstrating that not much has changed in a quarter-century, promoters of Prop. 111 trotted out long lists of projects that would be completed with the billions of dollars in new revenue. Advertising focused on the benefits of Proposition 111, without ever mentioning taxes.

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L.A. County Illegally Spending Taxpayer Money on Measure H Ads

Photo courtesy of channone, flickr

Photo courtesy of channone, flickr

Today, Los Angeles County voters will decide Measure H, a proposed sales tax increase to pay for homeless programs. This tax increase will be in addition to the property tax increase to pay for bonds for homeless programs just enacted by the city of Los Angeles last November with Measure HHH.

If you are wondering why Angelinos should tax themselves even more, you’re asking the right question. California is one of the most heavily taxed states in America with the highest income tax rate, the highest state sales tax and nearly the highest gas costs due to both the high excise tax on each gallon sold plus the additional costs embedded as a result of environmental regulations. And even with Proposition 13, California ranks in the top third among all states in per capita property taxes collected.

The inability of our political leaders to prioritize spending is driving both the state and our major cities into insolvency. If massive spending on homeless programs — assuming it does any good at all — is what the county wants to do, then it should reduce spending on other programs of a lower priority.

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California’s “Secure Choice” program is neither secure nor a choice

retirement_road_signCalifornia’s “Secure Choice” program sounds harmless enough: A voluntary program — at least for now — that would enroll private sector employees who currently don’t have a retirement plan into a state-run retirement savings account.

When the initial program was announced in 2012 with authorizing legislation, taxpayers were skeptical. Now that the program is even closer to fruition, there is greater reason to be concerned. The good news, however, is that the U.S. Congress is now threatening to pull the plug on this foolish endeavor.

The first question is why is this program even needed? While many public employees don’t pay into Social Security (most receive generous public retirement benefits instead) workers in the private sector do receive Social Security. One might complain that Social Security benefits are inadequate but, because the program is backed by the federal government (which has the power to print money) the benefits promised are almost certain to be forthcoming. Not only that, under federal law, there are many programs to assist private-sector workers whose employers don’t offer 401(k) or other employer-based plans. These include individual retirement accounts, both traditional and Roth IRAs. For workers without an employer retirement plan, there are generous limits on how much can be saved tax deferred.

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Increasing Water Supply Must Balance Conservation Measures

In a recent commentary, tax-fighter Jon Coupal exposed one of the hidden agendas behind Senate Constitutional Amendment 4, which was recently introduced in the California Legislature. Coupal writes: “They wish to charge those water users they perceive as ‘bad’ more per gallon than those users they perceive as ‘good.’ The beauty of ‘cost of service’ rates, however, is that they are fair for everyone: You pay for what you use.”

California’s consumers already endure tiered rates for electricity consumption, where if their electricity consumption goes beyond approved levels, they pay more per kilowatt-hour. At least with electricity, there is some rationale for tiered pricing, because when demand exceeds capacity the utility has to purchase power from the grid at the spot market rate. But in the case of water that’s a much harder case to make. Water prices are negotiated far in advance by water utilities.

The reason utilities want to charge tiered rates is so they can discourage “over-consumption” of water, in order for them to avoid running out of water during times of severe drought. What happened repeatedly over the past few years was that suppliers to many regional water districts could not meet their contracted delivery obligations. Understandably, water districts want to reduce total annual consumption so, if necessary, they can get by with, for example, only 60 percent of the amount of imported water they would otherwise be contractually entitled to.

Punitive rates for “overuse,” however, will effectively ration water, as only a tiny minority of consumers will be wealthy enough to be indifferent to prohibitively high penalties.

There is a completely different way for water districts to address this challenge. An optimal solution to California’s water supply issues should incorporate not only conservation, but also increasing supply. And to fund new supplies of water, utilities should experiment with tiered pricing that only incorporates moderate price increases. Doing this would mean a large portion of consumers will not be deterred from “overuse,” and the extra revenue they provide the utility could be used for infrastructure investment to increase supplies of water through myriad solutions – including runoff capture and enhanced aquifer storage, sewage treatment to potable standards, seawater desalination, and off-stream reservoir storage.

The following images excerpted from a spreadsheet provide a simplistic but illuminating example of how reasonable tiered pricing could, in aggregate, fund massive investment in additional supplies of water. In the first example, below, with assumptions highlighted in yellow, are water consumption profiles for a regional water utility district that engages in punitive pricing for overuse of water. As can be seen in the large yellow highlighted block to the center left, when unit costs for water are tripled for those consumers who “overuse” water, the number of “over-users” is a small 4 percent minority of all consumers, and the number of “super-users” is a minute 1 percent of all consumers. Consequently, the utility only collects $900,000 per month, barely 5 percent of its revenue from consumers, from households that are deemed to have overused water.

FINANCIAL IMPACT TO UTILITY OF PUNITIVE PRICING FOR “OVERUSE”

The next example, below, shows hypothetical consumption profiles for a regional water utility district that engages in reasonable pricing for overuse of water. Again, as can be seen in the the large yellow highlighted block to the center left, when unit costs for water are increased by 50 percent (instead of 300 percent) for those consumers who “overuse” water, the number of “over-users” is a significant 20 percent minority of all consumers, and the number of “super-users” is a substantial additional 10 percent of all consumers. Consequently, the utility collects $3,000,000 per month, 14 percent of its revenue from consumers, from households that are deemed to have overused water.

FINANCIAL IMPACT TO UTILITY OF REASONABLE PRICING FOR “OVERUSE”

This is a simplistic analysis, requiring caveats too numerous to mention. Utilities get much of their revenue from property taxes, not from consumer ratepayers, and fixed service fees still constitute most of the amount that appears on a typical household water bill. The utility’s internal cost for water, pegged here at $.20 per CCF, is actually calculated through a maddeningly complex and somewhat subjective cost-accounting exercise that takes into account the amortization of capital costs for treatment, storage and distribution facilities, operating costs, as well as actual contracted purchases from, for example, the California State Water Project. But there is a deeper debate over principles that these examples are designed to emphasize, one with profound consequences for our quality of life in the coming decades.

By implementing severe financial penalties to utility customers who “overuse” their water, electricity, or anything else, state regulators are effectively imposing rationing on all but extreme high-income households. Complying in the face of punitive rates for overuse requires consumers to submit to undesirable lifestyle adjustments including short duration, low-flow showers, low flow faucets that require long wait times for hot water to arrive through the pipes and long wait times to fill pots, remotely administered, algorithmically managed “affordable” times for washing dishes and laundry, mandated purchases of expensive new internet enabled appliances that are ridiculously difficult to simply turn on and use, require regular warranty payments because they break down so much, with annual fees imposed to update their software.

We don’t have to live this way. California’s residential households consume less than 6 percent of the water diverted and used in California for environmental, agricultural, and commercial purposes, yet by far they pay the most to maintain and upgrade this infrastructure. Indoor water overuse is a myth, as all indoor water is either being completely recycled by the sewage treatment utility, or should be. Raising rates causes consumers to under-use water, despite most of a utility’s costs being for the operations infrastructure, creating a vicious cycle of rate increases to maintain sustainable revenues. And when consumer water use is crammed down further and further, the overall system of water infrastructure is progressively downsized until there is not enough resiliency and overcapacity in the system to absorb a major disruption such as an earthquake, a dam failure, or acts of terrorism.

The conventional wisdom in California as expressed in policies enforced by an overwhelming majority of Democrats in the state Legislature is that we must live in “an era of limits.” But this motto, originally coined in the 1970’s by Governor Jerry Brown, is in direct conflict with the spirit and culture of Californians, as exemplified by the dreams they offer the world from Hollywood and the miraculous innovations they offer the world from Silicon Valley. The idea that California’s legislators cannot enact policies designed to increase supplies of water and energy enough to make life easier on the citizens they serve is absurd, and must be challenged.

Ed Ring is the vice president of policy research for the California Policy Center.

Is it time to abandon the Bear Flag?

Californias-state-flagThe Bear Flag, which first appeared as the symbol of the short-lived Bear Flag Republic in 1846, was made the official flag of California in 1911. The flag displays a California grizzly bear which, in a bit of irony, is extinct in California with the last sighting taking place in 1922.

Without any disrespect to what was a magnificent animal, perhaps it is time for a new emblem that more accurately reflects the current state of the state. Let’s consider the Oroville Dam as a more appropriate symbol. It’s large, not functioning well, parts are crumbling and it is putting the lives and property of thousands of Californians in jeopardy. To top it off, for over a dozen years, officials have been ignoring warnings that the now eroding emergency spillway was vulnerable to heavy rains.

Since the dam came on line in the late 1960s, and especially beginning with the first terms of Gov. Jerry Brown, California has shifted from a state that prioritized infrastructure improvement to one that focuses on entitlement programs, public employee compensation and environmental policies that stifle economic growth.

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Sen. Hertzberg Targets Homeowners With Higher Water and Sewer Rates

Storm_DrainIt’s no secret that tax-and-spend interests have hated Proposition 13 since its adoption by the voters in 1978. Immediately after passage, Prop. 13 was the target of numerous lawsuits and legislative proposals seeking to create loopholes that would allow government to grab more tax dollars from California citizens.

These constant attacks compelled taxpayer advocates to go back to the voters with multiple initiatives to preserve the letter and spirit of Prop. 13. These included Prop. 62 in 1986 (voter approval for local taxes); Prop. 218 (closing loopholes for local fees and so-called “benefit assessments”); and Prop. 26 (requiring “fees” to have some nexus to the benefits conferred on the fee payers).

However, the latest tax-grabber to treat homeowners as ATMs is state Senator Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys. If he gets his way, Californians will be spending a lot more on water and sewer service. He seeks to do away with the critical “cost of service” requirements for water rates as well as treat “stormwater runoff” (the rain that runs down street gutters) the same as “sewer service,” opening the door to virtually unlimited — and unvoted — sewer rates.

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California: Time for a Major Change in Course

Governor Jerry Brown, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, legislative and other government officials are fixated on battling the new administration in Washington with almost total disregard for California’s major problems and unmet needs. Failure to address these pressing problems threatens the viability of a state whose status is rapidly being transformed from “golden” to “tarnished.”

To help the political class refocus on the important, here is a list of the most exigent problems accompanied by modest solutions, as compiled by a couple of veteran taxpayer advocates who speak with, and hear from, thousands of California taxpayers.

  • car highway roadRoads & Highways – Just about any road trip one drives on in California confirms that we have gone from a world leader in highway capacity and quality to barely a third world contender. Major changes are in order. Our gasoline tax must be dedicated to roads and highways alone, not to other general fund uses like paying off state general obligation bonds, as is now the practice. Also, Senator John Moorlach’s demands to reform Caltrans should be a top priority. California spends 4.7 times as much per mile of state highway than the national average, according to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and a 2014 government report concluded the transportation agency was over-staffed by 3,500 positions. Additionally, we should end the practice of requiring “prevailing wages” on public works projects, which are estimated to add up to 20 percent on every road and other public improvement.
  • Energy Costs – Gasoline formulation requirements, “cap and trade” and other responses to climate change must be revisited with demonstrable science and hard-headed realism to help low and middle income Californians who struggle with the costs of transportation and household energy. This is not climate change denial, but rather a recognition that it is patently unfair to burden the citizens of one state with the entirety of a global problem.
  • Business Regulations and Lawsuit Abuse – Manufacturing restrictions, wage and salary rules, workers’ compensation standards, frivolous lawsuits and “sue and settle” standards have driven the aerospace and most other manufacturing industries out of California. Time for tort and regulatory reform to establish a business-friendly climate that will encourage refugees to return and lure others to relocate here. Note: The Nestle Corporation has just announced it is moving its U.S. headquarters from Glendale to Rosslyn, Virginia taking hundreds of high paying jobs with them.
  • Land Development and Housing Costs – The mid ‘70s pioneering California Environmental Quality Act has created a nightmare for those seeking affordable, conveniently located housing, workplaces and shopping centers. It has been used as a weapon by environmentalists, competitors, “NIMBYs” and labor organizations to limit – and dramatically drive up the cost of homes, apartments and other needed facilities. Fortunately, despite the best efforts of some in Sacramento, Proposition 13 remains on the job protecting homeowners from runaway property taxes that could force them from their homes.
  • Public Transit – Gov. Brown’s “Bullet Train to Nowhere” is in a death spiral due to lack of public support, refusal of the federal government and the private sector to provide additional funds, and out of control costs due to mismanagement, malfeasance and insurmountable engineering hurdles. But fixed route/fixed rail transit remains part of the liberal social planners’ mantra. Other than in highly congested urban areas, public transit is unjustifiable in terms of both capital and operating costs. With the advent of Lyft, Uber, self-driving cars and even Elon Musk’s Hyperloop — that, within a few years, could move passengers at a faction of the cost of rail — private companies and entrepreneurs are offering answers to the mobility problem. This justifies placing renewed emphasis on fixing and expanding our highway system.
  • Education Improvements and Cost Control – “School choice” is the answer to improving K-12 student learning results. The political clout of the California Teachers Association and other teacher unions has blocked progress. Properly framed ballot initiatives may be the only realistic avenue to reform as we must stop the automatic and mindless Proposition 98 commitment of nearly half of general fund revenues – regardless of need – to K-12 and community colleges.
  • Public Employee Wages, Benefits and Pension Reforms – Public sector compensation costs for California, at both the state and local levels, are now clearly unsustainable. According to the Department of Labor, California state and local employees are the highest compensated in all 50 states. Pay, benefits and pensions of public employees have become disproportionate to their private sector counterparts who foot the bill. Adding to the approaching calamity is mismanagement – which has included criminal bribery – at CalPERS, the state’s largest public employee pension fund. Politically motivated investment strategies and fanciful predictions of return on those investments have left taxpayers on the hook for hundreds of billions of dollars in unfunded liability for current and future retirees. Consideration must be given to shuttering CalPERS and fairly allocating to each current employee their share of the retirement funds, arranging for the public employer to make up the difference for what has been promised to date, and move from “defined benefit” to “defined contribution” plans for all existing and future employees. Otherwise, this pension burden has the potential to grow so large that California will not be able to fund the most basic services and as residents flee to other states, the last one out will be asked to turn out the lights.

We call on our representatives to stop pursuing discretionary causes and pet projects and come to grips with these real problems facing all Californians.

Lewis K. Uhler is Founder and Chairman of the National Tax Limitation Committee and National Tax Limitation Foundation. He was a contemporary and collaborator with both Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman in California and across the country.

Jon Coupal is the President of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. He is a recognized expert in California fiscal affairs and has argued numerous tax cases before the courts. 

This piece was originally published by HJTA.org

Taxes, Fees, Charges and Assessments: What Difference Does It Make?

TaxesWhat’s the difference between a tax and fee? There is no easy answer and the political class likes it that way. In fact, they would prefer that the public remain confused to the point of apathy.

The political class, of course, consists of elected officials, bureaucrats and their special interest allies who are to the Capitol what insider traders are to Wall Street. Working in lockstep, their approach to increasing the take from taxpayers was best outlined by Jean Baptiste Colbert, Minister of Finance under Louis XIV of France: The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing.

But taxpayers are not defenseless because Proposition 13 – later strengthened by Proposition 218, the Right to Vote on Taxes Act – provides effective weapons against an insatiable government ever in search of more revenue. These include voter approval requirements. At the state level, new or higher taxes require a two-thirds vote of each house and, at the local level, voter or property owner approval requirements allow those who have to pay a government exaction (no matter what it is called) an opportunity to say no.

However, to protect themselves, taxpayers must be knowledgeable, alert and ready to fearlessly protect and exercise their rights.

Therefore, while most taxpayers don’t have a law degree, here are some basics about the difference between a “tax” and a “fee.” There are very few legal limitations on “taxes.” About the only way a tax could be unconstitutional is if it impaired a fundamental right (a “poll” tax on the right to vote) or if it singled out some group for discriminatory purposes. But fees are different. A fee is a charge for something that confers a benefit to the fee-payer that is not available to those who do not pay the fee. A classic example is a charge for entering a state campground.

Until the passage of Proposition 26 in 2010, the Legislature could approve fees with a simple majority vote. But in 2011, the Legislature approved, with a simple majority, charging 850,000 rural homeowners an annual “fire fee” of $150. The “fee” was not accompanied by any additional benefit or service, clearly making it a tax requiring a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. This issue is currently being litigated by taxpayers, but it is a classic example of the dishonest ends to which tax raisers are willing to go to wring ever more money from taxpayers.

Moreover, the political class has a habit of pursuing taxes that are not apparent to the general public. Almost any tax on business fits into this category. As Howard Jarvis liked to say, businesses do not pay taxes, “we do.”

As part of Obamacare, the federal government imposed a tax scheme designed to stop employers from offering top quality health plans. Backers of the Affordable Care Act included a 40 percent tax on providers of what were derisively described as “Cadillac” plans. As these plans disappear, the uninformed will assume that it is their employer who is responsible, when, in fact, it is government.

Here, in California, a major hidden tax is cap-and-trade legislation, not approved with a two-thirds vote, that compels companies to buy carbon credits. Of course, these costs are passed on and drivers feel the impact every time they fill up with gasoline that costs, by the most conservative estimates, an additional 12 cents per gallon with more increases on the horizon. Unaware of the impact of cap-and-trade, many motorists may mistakenly assume that the high cost of gas is entirely due to the petroleum companies.

This is why taxpayers are closely watching a case just argued before the Sacramento appeals court, where opponents argue that cap-and-trade charges amount to an unconstitutional tax. The court is expected to render a decision within 90 days but, regardless of the outcome, the loser is likely to appeal to the California Supreme Court.

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.

This piece was originally published by HJTA.org

Will Taxpayers Be Mugged by Sacramento?

TaxesGovernor Brown has just released his spending proposal for 2017-18 and taxpayers should not be blamed if they feel like they are walking down a dark alley in a high-crime neighborhood.

While the governor’s proposed budget has been described as austere, it still represents a spending boost of 5 percent, a rate of increase only slightly smaller than last year’s 6 percent. Because the state is in the process of rewarding its employees with generous pay increases and covering an expanding requirement to fund their pensions — pensions that are currently subsidized by six percent of the general fund budget — more spending does not represent an increase in the quantity or quality of services for average Californians.

The Brown budget contains no major program increases except for transportation. But the kicker is that this would be contingent on higher taxes on gasoline and car registration. So, while state workers will be kept snug and comfortable, if commuters want those pot holes repaired, they must pay extra.

However, the governor’s budget should not be regarded as anything more than a place holder, as the ability to fund it is threatened from all directions. The new administration in Washington, as well as a majority of both houses of Congress, have made it clear that Obamacare is on the verge of elimination. There can be little doubt that federal funding for California’s massive expansion of Medicaid is in jeopardy. Because, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, a government program is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth, no one will be surprised when Sacramento looks to average taxpayers to make up the nearly $16 billion-dollar difference.

Then there is uncertain tax revenue. The extension of the nation’s highest income tax rates renders California highly vulnerable to economic fluctuations. Although growth had been tepid, we have experienced 90 months of economic expansion and financial experts warn us to be prepared for the next downturn.

As if these threats were not enough, Brown will have to contend with elements in his own party who believe in the axiom of former Senate leader, David Roberti, “When you’ve got it, spend it,” to which they would add the corollary, “If you don’t have it, spend it anyway.”

Chairman of the Assembly Budget Committee, Phil Ting, has already made it clear that he does not want to budget assuming the worst, that the Legislature must continue “investing in California,” a budgetary approach akin to Admiral David Farragut’s at the battle of Mobile Bay, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” While Farragut was successful, is it appropriate to put California taxpayers at dire risk through imprudent spending?

In May, the governor will issue a revised budget, no doubt with major changes, in advance of the June 15 deadline for final passage. If revenue is down, taxpayers may be treated to the spectacle of a cage match between those committed to spending, backed by their special interest allies, and those who advocate a slightly more cautious approach.

In Sacramento, fiscal sanity is relative. Ironically, our eccentric governor who thinks nothing of lavishing nearly $100 billion on a bullet train, may be the dwindling middle class’s best hope to fend off major increases to their already staggering tax burden.

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.

This article was originally published by HJTA.org