Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward the Light Brigade!
Charge for the guns!" he said.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
-- Alfred Tennyson, The Charge of the Light Brigade.
Like the Russians did to the British at Balaclava in Tennyson's famous poem, California’s Republicans have set a deadly trap for Democrats that they won’t be able to escape.
When the state’s more than $40 billion shortfall and budget stalemate was resolved last month, it was on condition that several tax increase propositions be placed before the voters. Governor Schwarzenegger has set May 19, 2009, as the date that the voters will decide the fate of these propositions in a special election.
Schwarzenegger and the state Democratic leadership support these tax increase propositions.
The Republicans – who acquiesced in both the budget and its tax increases by permitting the minimum number of their party members to vote for the deal that ended the stalemate – are now likely to oppose them.
Joining the Republicans in urging that voters reject the tax increase propositions will be the state’s powerful and well-funded anti-tax organizations, including the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform.
As a result, the voters will see an intense, expensive, and high publicity campaign leading up to the May 19 special election that pits Democrats (and their union allies) arguing for higher taxes against Republicans (and their anti-tax allies) calling for no increase in taxes.
Once again, the Republicans will be the party saying no to taxes and the Democrats will be forced to be the party of tax increases.
To most voters, it will not matter that the budget deal was explicitly premised on the state getting the increased revenue from these taxes.
Nor will it matter to the Republicans that they tacitly agreed to these tax increases when they signed off on the state’s budget.
Instead, the Republicans will seize the opportunity of the special election to make amends to the state’s anti-tax forces – which are mad as hell at them for agreeing to the state budget – and to paint the Democrats – once again -- as profligate spenders who want to tax Californians to death.
To make matters worse for the Democrats, the propositions that are going before the voters on May 19 are mostly hikes in regressive taxes and state fees – including increases in the state's income tax, sales tax, gasoline tax and vehicle fees – that hit middle class pocketbooks hardest.
Again, it will not matter to voters that it was the Republicans who insisted that if the state's revenue is increased, it be increased by the most regressive kinds of tax measures.
Nor is it likely to matter to voters that for decades the Republicans and the state’s anti-tax forces have forced the middle class to bear the brunt of the state’s revenue needs because of Prop 13’s constitutional command not to tax commercial or business property differently than owner-occupied homes, and the Republicans’ steadfast commitment to protecting the rich by opposing any form of progressive taxation.
The reason that these facts are unlikely to matter to voters is that the Democrats have done a terrible job of making these arguments in the past, and specifically failed to make these arguments during the heat of the most recent budget battle.
California's Democrats should have taken their cue from the Obama campaign and insisted that the state's already battered middle class be protected from any tax increase.
And like Obama, California's Democrats should instead have called for balancing the state budget through higher taxes for the very rich who have benefited so disproportionately from both the Bush tax cuts and the financial deregulation that has led to our national economic crisis.
But it’s probably too late to do that now.
The tax trap is set.
And California's Democrats are riding right into it.