Polls Favor Brown Tax Plan, But Roadblocks Remain
A new poll showed California Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal for a tax hike on higher earners may have broad support among voters. But the measure’s supporters have a difficult road ahead to find support from business groups and collect enough signatures to get the intiative on the ballot.
The Los Angeles Times/USC Dornsife poll—the first to gauge public opinion since Brown and a major teachers group agreed to merge their competing initiatives—found nearly two thirds of Californians favor tax increases to fund public education and public safety.
Brown’s new ballot measure would raise taxes on those making $250,000 a year, and increase the sales tax by a quarter of a cent to help close the state’s chronic budget gap. It was created through a compromise with the California Federation of Teachers (CFT), which had proposed a popular competing measure that would have imposed a “millionaires tax” to fund education directly without putting money into the general fund to reduce the deficit.
The compromise may have helped boost the popularity of the governor's plan. “Voters are generally a lot more willing to raise taxes on other people,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.
The most recent polling results are an encouraging sign for the new measure’s campaign, which needs to collect nearly 808,000 signatures to qualify for the November ballot. The Brown team wants to have all signatures gathered by early May to make sure the measure is cleared on time, according to a spokesman in the governor's office.
“It’s a huge, huge undertaking,” said Larry Levine, a California Democratic political consultant who has worked on multiple ballot measure campaigns. The record for collecting signatures is 28 days to collect more than 1 million.
It is common to hire signature gathering firms when there is a need for a strong push. Signature gatherers can work for up to $3 per signature collected. Some expect the payments to go up even higher when the deadline draws closer.
“Probably the only benefit to high unemployment is that there are a lot of signature gatherers available,” said Wayne Johnson, a Republican political consultant.
All the while, Brown’s original measure, which included a higher sales tax increase and less reliance on income taxes from high earners, is still in circulation getting signatures. This, experts say, is a hedge. “If something goes wrong with the initiative—if they don’t get enough signatures, if one of the partners backs out—Brown’s got something to fall back on,” Levine said.
Brown also still has to be careful about how he presents the measure to the public. Taxes can be a tough sell in a recession, especially if the money is going up to Sacramento. A recent opinion piece by George Skelton in The L.A. Times accused the governor of misleading voters by implying the revenue would go directly to public education and safety.
“It’s not that Californians are anti-tax,” said L.A.-based political consultant Allan Hoffenblum. “They pass taxes all the time, for schools and bond measures, and so forth. But what they’re very averse to is a tax measure that puts more money into the general fund, because they don’t trust the politicians up there to spend wisely.”
Brown’s new plan still faces competition from another tax initiative proposed by Pasadena attorney Molly Munger, whose measure would raise taxes on anyone making more than $7,000 a year.
Munger’s plan has been roundly opposed by business groups such as the California Chamber of Commerce, as was CFT’s original initiative. Brown’s original measure enjoyed the tacit support of such groups.
“If they really, truly wanted to buy into revenue increase, they probably would have supported a plan that was more broad-based, and that would’ve been Munger's,” Johnson said.
It isn't clear that big business in California will not oppose the new Brown measure. The California Chamber of Commerce won't have an official position on it until after its board meets in May, according to the group’s spokeswoman.
Because the new measure includes elements of CFT’s “tax the rich” strategy, Brown may have to court business leaders more directly to avoid a massive opposition campaign. “If he’s going to convince them to stay out of it, he’s got to come to them with issues they like, such as pension reform,” Schnur said.