On November 6, a solid majority of California voters supported Proposition 30. The ballot initiative, which temporarily raises the sales tax and increases income taxes for the wealthy, will generate an estimated $6 billion per year to help stabilize the state’s dismal finances. The vote was a landmark event in California, the state that launched a national anti-tax revolt by passing Proposition 13 in 1978. And for Governor Jerry Brown—who was serving as a much younger governor back then—the triumph was particularly sweet.
In many ways, Brown was seeking redress for the crisis unleashed by Prop 13. That initiative—which capped the property tax rate that communities can impose and established a two-thirds majority requirement for any legislative effort to increase state or local revenues—torpedoed public finances in California for a generation. Prop 30 is by no means a cure-all, but it does offer a salve for the state’s ailing public sector. California had already cut tens of billions of dollars from education spending in recent years. If Prop 30 had failed, Brown would likely have had to cut many billions more, and his latest tenure as governor would no doubt have been written off as an abysmal failure. By persuading the electorate to back his tax plan, Brown has paved the way for a much more favorable reading of his legacy.
The significance of Prop 30 resonates beyond California, of course. Thirty-four years after the passage of Prop 13, voters across the country have decided that the strategy behind it doesn’t work. That doesn’t mean they’ve become overnight converts to notions of “big government.” But it does mean that the “starve the beast” approach of Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist—who once famously declared he wanted to shrink government until it was small enough to drown in the bathtub, and has compelled nearly every aspiring Republican to sign his “no new taxes” pledge—is no longer dominant. And the injection of nuance into the national discourse on taxes and spending is already making a huge difference.
Slowly but surely, local and state governments are gaining the ability to restore basic services and rebuild infrastructure that has corroded over decades. That can only be bad news for Norquist (who did not return calls relating to this article). After all, the appeal of his message relies on the assumption that government always delivers lemons. Improve the caliber of public service, allow schools and other parts of the public sector to deliver once more, and the talismanic power of his “no new taxes” slogan dissipates.
Norquist and his acolytes had a terrible day on November 6. First there was the presidential election, fought, at least in part, around the issue of raising taxes on the wealthy. Then there were the Senate races, in which liberals like Elizabeth Warren won and Tea Party–backed candidates like Richard Mourdock lost. (A month after the election, South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, a Tea Party kingpin, resigned to head up the Heritage Foundation, his strident views no longer quite so seductive on the Hill.) The GOP retained its majority in the House, but as Republicans struggled to come to terms with the debacle, Speaker John Boehner replaced a number of conservative committee members with more moderate appointees. Finally, there were the initiatives—not just in California but also in Florida, where voters shot down a proposal to restrict property taxes severely, and in Michigan, where voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would have required supermajority votes to pass any tax increases. Across the country, voters looked at proposals to eliminate taxes and said no, or they looked at proposals to increase taxes and said yes. Several anti-tax initiatives did pass—including a supermajority requirement in Washington. But no state ballot measure was as high-profile, or as significant to the national debate, as Prop 30.