It was shrewd of The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board to choose its words carefully when it called for tax reform (“There’s no time like April to talk about tax reform”; Editorials, April 13).
As the editorial points out, Gov. Jerry Brown is not running for re-election and the Democrats have comfortable majorities in the Legislature. As such, the editorial board urges policymakers “to show the courage to tackle one of the state’s most vexing problems.”
California’s tax problems need to be addressed – though, we disagree about what makes them so vexing – and elected representatives are better suited to the task than an initiative to the voters. But calling for action requiring political courage betrays the unlikelihood of any such outcome. Courageous decisions demand accountability, and that’s precisely the reason they are so rarely made.
Consider the approach by Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins, D-San Diego, to implement a new road fee. Her proposal is a tax reform that would replace revenue from the increasingly unreliable gas tax with a $52 annual fee on motorists to repair and maintain vital infrastructure.
Atkins’ desired policy outcome is laudable. But her bill is supposed to raise $1.8 billion annually. To realize her goal, Atkins is seeking to avoid the courageous and transparent route of charging the fee directly. Instead, she wants to tack the new levy on to drivers’ insurance bills, where it will be presented as an easier-to-swallow $4.33 monthly charge.
Asking private parties to act as the state’s revenue collectors is nothing new, but the practice is troubling because it disrupts the line of accountability between taxpayers and their representatives. Democratic societies depend upon transparency. Only by knowing what public officials are up to can they be answerable for their actions.
Atkins and the rest of our heavily Democratic state government should not be afraid of undertaking their tax reforms openly. Particularly when, as in the case of the road fee, tax reforms will lead to revenue increases.
In recent history, Californians have demonstrated they have a tolerance for tax increases. They voted for Proposition 30 in 2012. Arguably, California Democrats were placed in office to do what Republicans are refusing to do, which is to raise taxes.
For those reasons, tax reforms, which often involve new or raised taxes, should not be considered a courageous decision and certainly should not be obscured in any way. If the political cost for openly embarking on tax reform is losing elections, then perhaps the real question is whether some of the reforms should be contemplated at all.
Ian Adams is director of the Sacramento office of the R Street Institute, a nonprofit public policy research organization headquartered in Washington, D.C.