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Did political bias really influence California court decision on anti-tax ballot measure? – Red Bluff Daily News

Did political bias really influence California court decision on anti-tax ballot measure? – Red Bluff Daily News

Did political bias really influence California court decision on anti-tax ballot measure? – Red Bluff Daily News

When the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled a week ago that a highly controversial tax-limiting measure could not appear on the November ballot, its proponents immediately protested.

They claimed that a court dominated by Democratic appointees had acted with political motives rather than legal reasoning, ruling that the Taxpayer Protection and Government Accountability Act was a revision of the state constitution and could not be proposed through a citizen initiative.

“Clearly, the state Supreme Court has now sent a signal that they are part of the progressive agenda in California, that we are a one-party state in California and that there is no longer an independent judiciary in California,” Rob Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable, one of the measure’s lead sponsors, told reporters.

In a statement, Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, another sponsor, was equally critical, saying: “The seven Supreme Court justices caved to the wishes of the political branches (and) put politics ahead of the state Constitution.

“It is now clear that all three branches of California government — executive, legislative and judicial — believe that government can decide how much money it needs and raise taxes accordingly, and that voters cannot limit them.”

Given their backgrounds, it’s reasonable to assume that most, if not all, of the justices might personally disagree with a measure that would redefine many fees as taxes and put very strict limits on the ability of state and local governments to raise them. But did that lead them to block the measure and cover up their bias with an avalanche of legal language, as the sponsors claim?

The judges apparently anticipated that their motives would be questioned, emphasizing “the limited nature of our investigation” very early in their ruling.

“We do not consider or weigh the economic or social wisdom or general convenience of the initiative,” Judge Goodwin Liu said, adding: “The only question before us is whether the measure can be validly enacted by initiative.”

A careful reading of the 51-page decision absolves Liu and his colleagues of alleged ideological bias. It is clear that in drafting the measure, the sponsors overreached by introducing very fundamental changes to California’s system of government, amounting to a revision of the Constitution that can only be proposed by the Legislature or a constitutional convention.

The court said the obviously revisionist aspect of the measure would have forced the Legislature to subject any tax increase to voter approval for ratification, thereby undermining legislative taxing powers that have been part of the state’s structure throughout its 174-year history.

“One need not speculate on possible future consequences to conclude that the (Taxpayer Protection Act) is a revision in and of itself,” Liu wrote. “The measure would fundamentally restructure the most basic government powers. The TPA would exclude the imposition of new taxes from the control of the Legislature by requiring voter approval for all such measures.”

Some critics have suggested that the current court would have invalidated Proposition 13, the landmark 1978 property tax cap measure. But Liu addressed that issue as well, writing that Prop. 13’s changes “functionally operate within a relatively narrow range to achieve a new tax system that can provide substantial tax relief for our citizens. We decline to hold that such a narrow purpose cannot be achieved directly by the people through the initiative process.”

In other words, if the Business Roundtable and Coupal’s group had proposed less sweeping changes to tax authority, such a measure might have survived a legal challenge from Gov. Gavin Newsom, the Legislature and local governments.

Given the legal uncertainty in California about who can impose what taxes on what activities, a clarifying ballot measure would be welcome.

Dan Walters is one of the most decorated and widely read columnists in California history. He writes a four-times-weekly column offering insight and analysis of the state’s political, economic, social and demographic trends. He began covering California politics in 1975, just as Jerry Brown was beginning his first term as governor, and began writing his column in 1981, first for the Sacramento Union for three years, then for The Sacramento Bee for 33 years, and now for CalMatters since 2017.