Opinion

Why Did The Terminator's Tax Increase Plan Get Terminated?

By Matthew Cunningham
California Political Strategist/Editor, RedCounty.com

California voters have overwhelmingly rejected the 5 "budget reform" propositions cobbled together by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Democratic legislature, rejecting them by 30-point margins. Even in leftist bastion of San Francisco, these tax-and-borrow initiatives are going down.

The focus of voter ire was Proposition 1A, a soft-spending cap that also extended a massive, two-year tax hike for an additional two years. The tax extension was a partly successful bid to buy public employee union support.

The "Yes" and 1A-1E campaign possessed all the conventional advantages of winning a statewide initiative campaign: favorable ballot descriptions written by the legislature rather than, as is customary, by the Secretary of State; the support of nearly the entire ruling class from the governor on down, with the exception of most Republican legislators; and a huge advantage over the various "No" campaigns in terms of resources. By election day, the "Yes" side had spent an estimated $25 million on Prop. 1A alone, while opponents had scraped together just $1 million - a meager sum by expensive California standards.

But no amount of money and endorsements can sell voters on an obviously bad idea crafted by politicians who have no credibility with a fed-up public.

Add to that equation the growing discontent evident in the Tea Parties (which served as spontaneous, grass-roots anti-Prop. 1A rallies) and fanned by conservative talk radio, especially L.A.'s afternoon drive-time "John and Ken Show," which draws an estimated one million listeners during its peak hour. For the last two months, talk radio listeners have heard a steady drumbeat of "vote no on all them." Although California is a blue state on the presidential level, it remains anti-tax.

Voters in this low-turnout election follow the news and knew there would still be a $8 to $15 billion budget hole even if Prop. 1A passed. After years of smoke-and-mirror budgets that slide into the deficit almost as soon as they're enacted, California's already over-taxed residents aren't in the mood to sacrifice further when their state government isn't sacrificing not at all.

The ads were as hackneyed as the ideas they were selling: TV ad after TV ad featured somber-visaged firefighters or teachers, gravely intoning the dire consequences of failing to pass Propositions 1A - 1E. But jaded California voters are subjected to variations on the firefighter/teacher/policeman ad nearly every election cycle, warning us of impending societal collapse unless we pass this initiative or that bond. When we pass them, things don't seem to get any better. When we reject them, the world keeps turning.

The funny thing is, I'm pretty sure Schwarzenegger and his Democratic allies really believed their now-defeated propositions would stabilize the state budget. Living in the Sacramento cocoon, they simply cannot see drastic reductions in state government as something that can or should be done.

Meanwhile, outside Sacramento, awash in the state's worst economy in 70 years, Californians are cutting back, doing without and spending less. So when budget-crunched voters are asked to pay the highest taxes in the nation by politicians unwilling to put the government on a diet, the response is a resounding "no!" that cuts across California's geographic and partisan divides.

California political leaders displayed the same tone deafness before the passage of the landmark Proposition 13.--Now we'll see if their current obdurateness yields similar results.