Using Washington state's example, California might target the car tax for elimination.
The chattering class of Sacramento has been beside itself recently to proclaim that the era of limited government is over. The clamor has even captured some Republicans: A celebrated memo from a GOP legislative strategist warned that voters no longer believe that their taxes are too high. If anything, they now think the reverse.
Washington state voters have just blown a gigantic hole in such sophistry. Initiative 695 appeared on the Nov. 2 ballot to virtually abolish Washington's car registration tax and require all future tax increases to be submitted for approval by the voters. They did so because two small businessmen, Tim Eyman and R.D. "Monte" Benham, defied the political establishment's paternalistic view of big government.
Each had tried and failed to qualify similar initiatives last year. This year, they joined forces. They united a rag-tag group of volunteers, pieced together a grass-roots hodgepodge of precinct workers who set "trap lines" of petitions in every shop that would have them. Their strategy produced a record number of signatures to qualify Initiative 695 for the ballot--all collected by volunteers.
Every big corporation with ties to government opposed the measure. Legislative leadership of both major parties either were opposed or remained neutral. Only a rank-and-file revolt led by state GOP chairman Dale Foreman won the Washington state Republican Party's endorsement.
The media excoriated Initiative 695; every major newspaper denounced it in vitriolic terms. Big Labor spent lavishly against it. The political establishment came unglued, warning that it would decimate highways, schools, local governments, police, fire and public health programs.
The lopsidedness of the campaign redefined the term "David and Goliath." Opponents outspent supporters by a 10-1 margin.
Yet on election day, Initiative 695 passed 56% to 44%.
The measure's success is cause both for reflection and optimism among those of us here in California who tried and failed earlier this year to qualify a similar measure for the March 2000 ballot.
Like Washington state, the supporters of Big Government aggressively opposed the drive, launching a fusillade of false and dire predictions. In two successive budget years, legislators attempted to deflate the effort by passing partial reductions of the car tax that now amount to 35%.
Although a rank-and-file revolt within the California GOP produced an endorsement, party leaders blocked any support for the initiative.
Big Business refused to support the initiative drive in California.
The volunteer efforts for qualification, led by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. and People's Advocate, exceeded all expectations and placed the California drive on schedule to collect two-thirds of the necessary signatures.
However, without financial support from California's business establishment, the effort fell short of qualifying.
Oddly, California GOP leaders desperately searching for an issue to ignite voters for the 2000 election dismissed out of hand the abolition of California's car tax. Virginia's Gov. Jim Gilmore won a come-from-behind victory on that issue two years ago, and Virginia Republicans finished the job this month by taking control of the Virginia Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction.
However, there is also hope. Despite the united opposition of the political, big business, labor, media and government establishments of Washington state, a grass-roots effort succeeded decisively in obliterating one of the most abusive taxes on the books, as well as restoring the power to tax to the direct control of the people.
With a foundation of anti-car-tax activists now in place in California and a blueprint for success freshly battle-tested in Washington, it is only a matter of time before California follows Washington and Virginia in consigning its vehicle registration tax to the too-often-forgotten history of bad public policy.
Tom Mcclintock (R-granada Hills) Is Vice Chairman of the Assembly Transportation Committee and Director of Policy Development for the California State Assembly Republican Caucus
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Speaker's Commission on State/Local Government Finance