U.S.
4:54 pm
Fri August 17, 2012

Budgets Tight, States Ask Voters To Raise Taxes

Originally published on Fri August 17, 2012 6:03 pm

Tax increases will join political candidates on the November ballot in several states struggling to plug some big holes in their budgets.

One of the most closely watched measures is in California, where Gov. Jerry Brown has staked his reputation on closing his state's multibillion-dollar budget gap.

On Wednesday in Sacramento, Brown officially kicked off his campaign to get voter approval to raise taxes via the Schools Public Safety Protection Act, also known as Proposition 30.

"We all know what's at stake," Brown said, flanked by a group of high school students. "The kids standing behind me have their future at stake."

Filling Gaps

Proposition 30, if approved by voters, would temporarily increase the state sales tax by one-quarter cent, and raise income taxes on the state's highest earners. The new taxes are projected to raise about $6 billion in revenue.

When Brown, a Democrat, was campaigning for governor two years ago, California's budget was drowning in red ink. Since then, he's signed a budget that slashed spending on social services, and promised voters that he would not seek a tax hike without their approval.

"And if we cannot pass Prop. 30," Brown said, "we're taking a half-billion out of our colleges and universities, and we're taking 5 1/2 billion out of our schools. Doesn't make sense."

Critics say Brown's measure — and his pitch — are disingenuous. Not all of the money raised will be allocated to schools, they argue. And, they add, there is a competing tax hike measure dedicated entirely to school funding.

Despite those critiques, polling shows support for Brown's measure at more than 50 percent.

Corey Cook, a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, says the governor has seized on what may prove to be a winning approach.

Ultimately, he says this election is particularly significant because it presents voters with a choice: "Do you actually want your kids to come home from school three weeks early, or are you willing to pay more in taxes?"

Targeted And Specific

California isn't the only state where a tax hike proposal is linked to a specific goal.

In South Dakota, a ballot measure would raise the state sales tax from 4 to 5 percent, with the funding earmarked for K-12 education and the state's Medicaid program.

In Arkansas, there's a half-cent sales tax proposal designed to pay for a four-lane state highway system. Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark., says the measure trails in the polls.

"Yeah, Arkansans have a real queasiness about tax increases for general revenues," Barth says. "There's not a lot of trust in government to use money wisely."

And yet, Barth says recent history shows that Arkansans will vote to raise taxes — when they are convinced that the money will go to a specific and worthy project.

Politicians know "specific and worthy" is the threshold just about everywhere, says Arturo Perez, a fiscal analyst who follows state tax issues for the National Conference of State Legislatures. Savvy politicos then shape their requests to voters accordingly.

"When voters are asked to consider a tax increase, the likelihood that there is an earmark or dedicated expenditure of the revenues for a specific program is very high," Perez says.

There are a handful of other states with tax measures on the ballot this year, but those seek to reduce revenue collection, mainly by expanding tax exemptions and limiting property tax assessments.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In addition to questions about marijuana and same-sex marriage, state voters will also weigh in on a raft of tax and budget measures this November. Those include a few efforts to raise taxes. One of the most closely watched proposals is in California. There, Governor Jerry Brown has staked his reputation on his ability to close the state's multibillion dollar budget gap.

NPR's Richard Gonzales has that story.

RICHARD GONZALES, BYLINE: This week in Sacramento, Jerry Brown, flanked by a group of high school students, officially kicked off his campaign to get voter approval to raise taxes. It's called Proposition 30, the Schools and Public Safety Protection Act.

JERRY BROWN: We all know what's at stake. The kids standing behind me have their future at stake.

GONZALES: Prop 30, if approved by voters, would temporarily increase the sales tax by a quarter cent and income taxes on the state's highest earners. The new taxes would raise about $6 billion. Two years ago, when Jerry Brown was campaigning for governor, California's budget was drowning in red ink. Since then, he signed a budget that slashed spending on social services and he promised voters that he wouldn't seek a tax hike without their approval.

BROWN: And, if we cannot pass Prop 30, we're taking a half a billion out of our colleges and universities and we're taking five and a half billion out of our schools. Doesn't make any sense.

GONZALES: Critics say Brown's measure is disingenuous because not all of the money raised will go to schools. And, in fact, there is a competing tax hike measure dedicated entirely to school funding. Still, Brown's measure is polling better than 50 percent.

Corey Cook, who teaches politics at the University of San Francisco, says the governor has seized on what might prove to be a winning approach.

COREY COOK: And, ultimately, I think this election is a significant one because this is the one where, really, you know, voters are presented with the choice of - do you actually want your kids to come home from school three weeks early or are you willing to pay more in taxes?

GONZALES: California isn't the only state where a tax hike proposal is linked to a specific goal. In South Dakota, there's a measure to raise the state sales tax from four to five percent. The money is earmarked for K through 12 education and the state's Medicaid program.

In Arkansas, there's a half cent sales tax proposal designed to pay for a four-lane state highway system. Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, says the measure trails in the polls.

JAY BARTH: Yeah. I think Arkansans have a real queasiness about tax increases for general revenues. There's not a lot of trust in government to use money wisely.

GONZALES: And yet, Barth says recent history shows that Arkansans will vote to raise taxes when they are convinced that the money will go to a specific and worthy project. And politicians know that's the threshold just about everywhere, says Arturo Perez. He's a fiscal analyst who follows state tax issues for the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

ARTURO PEREZ: When voters are asked to consider the tax increase, the likelihood that there is an earmarked or dedicated expenditure of the revenues for a specific program is very high.

GONZALES: There are a handful of other states with tax measures on the ballot, but those seek to reduce revenue collection, mainly by expanding tax exemptions and limiting property tax assessments.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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