Can the State Raise Taxes Without a Vote of the People?

Super majority needed to raise taxes
Voters modified the state Constitution two years ago to remove a 2/3rds requirement for passage of a budget. However, that modification kept in place the requirement of a 2/3rds vote to raise taxes. Governor Brown made Democrats unhappy when he made an election pledge in 2010 to “not raise taxes without a vote of the people.” But, this is a political pledge, not a matter of law.

Brown appeared to come close to getting a 2/3rds vote to put a tax measure on the ballot last year. Republicans balked and Brown turned to education and union allies to fund a signature drive for an initiative measure that appears on this year’s ballot as Proposition 30.

Prop 30 and a competing tax increase plan, Prop 38, are the subjects of high profile campaigns and intense media scrutiny. But, behind the scenes all eyes are on a few legislative races that could tip the capitol into “one party rule” with Democrats holding 2/3rds majorities in both houses.

A 2/3rds majority – just 27 votes – can raise taxes without a vote of the people and over-ride Governor Brown’s veto power.

That ability to raise taxes is the last remaining vestige of the power that the super majority can wield. Nonetheless, it is a power that is of particular interest to party leaders.

As of September 30, the California Republican Party had $203,000 having spent $1 million during the previous three months. In contrast, the Democratic State Central Committee retained $13.8 million available to spend and had spent $4 million during the last three months.

If spending is any indication, then the Democratic Party is well on its way toward proclaiming a super majority. Republicans have not given up, however, and have directed as much as they can to the most competitive races. Two groups have emerged that hope to tip the scales back in favor of the Republicans. The first is a PAC known as the California Senior Advocates League which has given money to run advertisements against Democrats Pavley, Galgiani, and Roth. The second source of funds has come from the San Luis Obispo Republican Party, which has given to Zink and Miller.

Critics of the super-majority system claim that there is no need to require such a high threshold citing evidence that tax increases are avoidable without the barrier. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities claims that the super-majority requirement, as applied in California, makes fiscal decisions inflexible and leads to longer economic recovery periods after a recession.

The effects of the super-majority, though immediately limited to the ability to raise taxes without opposition vote. The ability for just 27 elected officials to make these decisions may indeed present longer-term challenges for Californians beyond just the intended promises of Governor Brown.