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Hold the Cynicism -- Temporary Taxes Really Are Temporary

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Opinion: On Pundits and Temporary Taxes

Conservative commentator George Will, in a recent column assaulting high-speed rail and all things California, suggested that the taxes in Gov. Jerry Brown's temporary tax measure really aren't temporary.

"Come November, Californians will vote on Brown’s recipe for reviving this slow-growth, high-tax state: Raise income taxes 'temporarily' on the rich, and on everybody with a 'temporary' sales tax increase."

Such cynicism about temporary taxes, conveyed via Will's misleading quotation marks around "temporary," is common among commentators and voters.

But it isn't justified by the facts -- at least in California.

If you want to see a tax that proved to be very temporary, you have to look no further back than just last year, when temporary tax increases enacted under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger expired.

Indeed, Brown's bid for temporary taxes in November started as an effort to extend those temporary sales and income taxes.

But try telling Californians they're paying less in state taxes now than they were at the beginning of last year, and they won't believe you.

This is an all-too-common triumph of feeling over fact.

It's not just that Californians are being taxed less thanks to the end of the Schwarzenegger increases.

Brown's ballot measure actually wouldn't raise income taxes for most Californians. Only income above $250,000 would be affected.

He's boosting the sales tax--but it would still be lower than it was after the expiration last year of temporary taxes.

Indeed, one problem with Brown's measure -- and with the California budget -- is precisely that the taxes really are temporary.

The state has a long history of enacting temporary taxes -- and permanent changes in the constitution and spending, one reason why the budget is so broken.

Brown's initiative makes this same mistake -- combining temporary taxes with a constitutional amendment that locks in certain revenues for local government. That could make it even harder to balance the budget when the temporary taxes run out.

There's another reason why taxes are temporary. Raising taxes requires a two-thirds vote of the legislature in California -- a vote that is hard to get (a rare moment came this week in the Assembly, involving corporate taxes).

But cutting taxes has been, until some recent changes, much easier -- requiring just a majority vote.

That's the reality of California, Mr. Will. We've got our problems, but those problems can't easily be explained by the ideological assumptions of inside-the-Beltway commentators.

Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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