Commentary Magazine


Tax Hikers Undaunted by California Defeat

In what must be seen as the last piece of bad news for liberals from Tuesday’s election results, California Governor Jerry Brown conceded late yesterday that his attempt to impose an extra $1 tax on cigarettes was turned down by the state’s voters by a narrow margin. But Brown is undaunted by the 51-49 percent defeat for the special tax. He is still planning to put even more wide-ranging tax increases on the ballot in November in an effort to force the most populous state’s citizens to dig deeper to fund the government’s growing deficit. Brown plans to force a vote on sales tax increases as well as imposing higher rates on the wealthy to get closer to balancing a state budget that is projected to be $15.7 billion in the red. He seems sure it will pass.

But given the way taxpayers balked at a hike in taxes on the despised minority that smoke as well as the way voters endorsed referenda in San Diego and ultra-liberal San Jose that cut back on municipal employee pensions, Brown’s confidence may be misplaced. The idea that voters can be blackmailed into approving confiscatory taxes in order to fund the government leviathan may be outdated. That’s something that liberal tax and spend politicians need to take into account. If even deep blue California has realized it’s time to put the brakes on the politicians’ gravy train, there should be no surprise that states like Wisconsin — where the public employee unions and their Democratic allies were prevented from throwing out Gov. Scott Walker — are embracing conservative ideas.

Advocates of the cigarette tax hike were shocked by its defeat. Its authors framed the question in such a way as to make it as much a referendum on increasing medical research as making it more expensive to buy smokes. But even that altruistic-sounding premise (backed by the endorsement of people like cyclist and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong) couldn’t outweigh the general disgust of the public with government pocketing more of the people’s money. Liberals sounded their usual sour grapes about being outspent–this time by the tobacco companies–but it could also be that cynicism about whether the taxes would really go to research may have contributed as well as revolt by some usual Democratic constituencies. After all, minorities and the poor are more likely to smoke than the affluent, making cigarette taxes among the most regressive in the government’s arsenal of levies.

There is also the possibility that even Californians are getting sick of the way the nanny state that Brown supports is not just legislating morality but attempting to impose new restrictions on individual liberty. Smoking is unpopular and rightly so as it is a noxious habit that contributes to the deaths of those who smoke as well as annoying those in the vicinity of the smoker. But the increasing resistance to using the tax code to discourage certain types of behavior and encourage others is becoming a significant force in American politics. Citizens are sick and tired of the tyranny of the taxman and the way government officials take it for granted that there is no limit on their ability to put their hands in the pockets of the taxpayers.

This week’s defeat for higher taxes in California as well as support for restrictions on union power there and elsewhere is a wake-up call for politicians to realize that the ideas of Scott Walker and not those of Jerry Brown are the wave of the future.