Yes on 30Everyone (OK, every geek like me) has their own favorite downballot race or ballot initiative they’re watching in this election. I definitely think Elizabeth Warren ascending to the US Senate would be a truly unique thing.

There are a couple bellweather races in the Senate (I think North Dakota will show the power of ideology versus candidate competence) and the House (a couple member-versus-member races, like Jim Renacci versus Betty Sutton in Ohio, will be determinative).

But I’m going with Kevin Drum: Prop 30 in California, and the symbolic end to the era of the tax revolt it would usher in, is the most important thing on the ballot this year, to me. Drum gives a good explanation of the 1,000-foot view:

The Golden State has had a rocky past decade, starting with overoptimistic spending during the dotcom boom; red ink as far as the eye could see during the dotcom bust; and finally, in 2003, a special election that propelled movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger into the governor’s mansion. Schwarzenegger won largely because of a second, mini-tax revolt, this time over an increase in the vehicle license fee, which he promised to roll back. He kept his promise, immediately plunging California back into deficit, and then passed a revenue bond that papered things over for a couple of years but, in the long run, just made California’s problems worse [...]

While Republicans may be a fading force in California, they maintain just enough members in the legislature to prevent any tax increases—thanks to Prop 13′s two-thirds requirement—something which has left Sacramento with no choice but to slash the budget brutally. In current dollars, California spent $3,100 per resident out of its general fund in 2007. Today that’s down to $2,400. (Raw numbers here.)

Because of this, schools have suffered, universities have suffered, and, of course, the poor have suffered. Further cuts this year would cause even more devastation, so Brown is resorting, once again, to California’s initiative process to fix things. Ironically, though, this time he’s campaigning hard for Proposition 30, a measure that would temporarily increase income taxes on the rich and sales taxes on everyone. The money would mostly be earmarked for K-12 schools and community colleges. If it doesn’t pass, automatic triggers in the 2013 budget will take effect, slashing $6 billion in planned spending.

There are additional parts to this story, ones that  are important to understand. First of all, Brown originally constructed this measure with the income tax increases dipping down to capture lower-income earners, and a twice-as-big sales tax. I believe this was done to broaden support among the business community (I’m not even sure why – businesses would suffer from a higher sales tax that reduces disposable income).

But progressives worked up some polls and saw this as a clear loser – you could demagogue the sales tax as a tax on “everything you buy,” and the income taxes would not simply fall on the rich. So they created a “Millionaire’s Tax” measure that eliminated the sales taxes and put the dividing line on income tax increases at $1,000,000.

Brown stubbornly refused to talk to the Millionaire’s Tax coalition. But then something miraculous happened. Brown pulled his original measure, and reworked it, reducing the sales tax hike to 1/4 penny (an extra $1 for every $400 you spend) and raising the threshold income tax increase. This didn’t eliminate the deficiencies – the opposition still demonized the sales tax in the exact same way – but it strengthened the case for the bill.

Brown was unable to reduce the full opposition on the ballot, however – Molly Munger, the rich scion of Warren Buffett’s business partner, put Prop 38 on the ballot, which would raise income taxes across the board. Munger then contrasted her initiative with Prop 30 on the air, spending $82 million between her and her brother to both pass that, attack Prop 30 (only one can succeed since they impact the same tax rates) and support Prop 32, which would eliminate union participation in politics.

I’ve seen the campaign for Prop 30 on the ground, and I haven’t been terribly impressed. They ran a good gimmick to have Jerry Brown’s dog tour the state campaign offices to attract attention, and it actually worked. But they discouraged door-to-door campaigning – Prop 30 didn’t knock on one door – and Jery Brown himself, who didn’t start campaigning until two weeks ago (!), had this head-scratcher of a moment:

“In the cafe, located in the shadow of San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter, Brown asked employees whether they had heard of Proposition 30. A couple had. Most had not.

“‘Do you watch TV?’ Brown asked a young woman who had not heard of the measure.

“She said she did not. Brown seemed exasperated. ‘That’s the problem,’ the governor said. ‘How do you reach the non-TV voter?’”

Gee, I don’t know, go to their house?

The logic of the tax measure was very clear for voters. California has destroyed its public services for almost a decade, and got to a point where they just couldn’t do it anymore. Tax austerity is austerity, but much milder than slashing public services and in particular destroying public education. Republicans were exposed as obstructionists and reflexive anti-tax lunatics. The tax measure was massaged enough to not affect the truly needy. The opposition on TV was expected.

I would argue that the terrible campaign being run brought the No side back into the race. And it’s extremely important. You won’t see another threat to the tax revolt for a decade or more if this doesn’t pass. (Prop 38 is destined to fail badly, by the way.) And this has completely hemmed in the way in which we legislate in the state, robbing us of the ability to act as a harbinger for the nation.

Photo by quinn.anya under Creative Commons license