Monday, October 17, 2016




          When cities close down street traffic lanes and paint “experimental” bicycle paths on pavement once used by cars, the so-called experiment almost never fails. The change virtually always becomes permanent.

          Even in Portland, Ore., where as an “experiment” officials early this year installed small sound-making bumps to let drivers know when they drift into a bike lane and resentful motorists responded by ripping out 70 percent of those bumps, the bumps are back. There was no serious consideration of removing either the once-experimental bicycle path or the humps.

          It’s much the same with “temporary” taxes. California has seen only one “temporary” levy disappear on schedule, a one-time $7 billion surcharge on income taxes of the wealthy imposed by Republican Pete Wilson shortly after he became governor in early 1991.

          So it’s no surprise that the majority of new taxes imposed by the 2012 Proposition 30 are about to become all but permanent, lasting at least through 2030.

          This is what the current Proposition 55 is about. Gov. Jerry Brown pushed hard for Prop. 30 four years ago, spending liberally from his political war chest to get the measure passed. He promised at the time the increases would be temporary, petering out after 2018 – and he’s not actively supporting Prop. 55 now. None of the money behind it comes from Brown or any political action committee related to him. But he’s not opposing it, either.

          Prop. 30 did work. Using the $6 billion-plus per year raised via its small sales tax increase and its income tax hikes for the wealthy, Brown and the Legislature kept California’s general fund solvent.

          The central question of Prop. 55: Can this continue without that money? A general belief the money would be vitally needed in even a slight economic turndown is the main reason there is no significant opposition to extending these tax hikes another 12 years.

Much of the $50 million-plus behind Prop. 55 comes from public employee unions, notably the California Teachers Assn. and the Service Employees International Union. The California Hospital Assn. and the California Medical Assn. are also big contributors. All remember the years of belt-tightening before Prop. 30.

They also know that voters are often happy to tax the rich, which is what Prop. 55 does. It would eliminate the sales tax portion of Prop. 30, while extending the tax surcharge for the top 1.5 percent of the state’s earners. Single people would pay nothing for this unless their adjusted gross income tops $263,000, or twice that for married couples. The top tax rate would be 13.3 percent for annual incomes above $1.1 million.

          Most voters have little sympathy for those folks, one reason polls all year have showed about two-thirds of voters support Prop. 55.

          Because the money is all earmarked for education and health care, this measure also dovetails neatly with polling that shows about 60 percent of voters believe California schools should spend much more than they do now. The 2014 average of $9,595 per student was well below the national average of $11,667, and placed this state 42nd in per student education spending, even though it was in the top ten for per capita state taxes paid.

          While few voters can rattle off those numbers, they get the idea when they see peeling paint and leaky roofs in school buildings.

          So the idea of making near-permanent the Prop. 30 tax increase on the wealthy seems like a natural this year.

          But nothing in Prop. 55 would actually lead anyone to believe it would promote better education. Yes, districts may add a few more courses here and there. But even Brown’s three-year-old system of giving more of the Prop. 30 money to schools with the most low-income and English-learner students has not discernibly improved education. Test scores in most places have been static.

          There is no doubt, then, that if and when it passes, Prop. 55 will be yet another example of a temporary tax made near-permanent. In fact, its take has already become part of the status quo, which means voters can expect more school-funding propositions down the line.


    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough, The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit

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