Political Notebook

Tax boosts target the powerless

Jerry Brown is fond of aphorisms he may believe sound wryly sage, but often come across as cynical.

One such occasion was this year’s “Host Breakfast,” an annual gathering of business leaders in Sacramento that governors traditionally address.

He paid homage to his own performance during his second stint as governor, saying he had acquired “a sense of the way things work and the way they break down,” but worried aloud that the state’s budget relies on “very volatile” taxes on the investment earnings of a relative handful of wealthy Californians, thus making it very vulnerable to another recession.

“The best tax is one that 99 percent of the voters don’t pay,” Brown observed – thus indirectly acknowledging that he took advantage of that tendency in 2012 when he persuaded voters to raise taxes on the wealthy, making the state even more dependent on their unpredictable investment gains.

A November ballot measure, Proposition 55, would extend that dangerous dependency on the rich for another 12 years, and its strong lead in the polls is a testament to the cynical validity of Brown’s observation about voters’ willingness to approve taxes that they won’t be paying themselves.

However, some go even further, seeking taxes on those who have absolutely no power to protest, even at the polls.

California has seen a steady increase in local tax bites on non-residents of the taxing jurisdictions.

One example is the “hotel tax” that’s routinely attached to lodging bills by cities and counties – grabbing money from visitors who are powerless to protest for purposes that usually have nothing to do with their visits. These extra levies typically top 10 percent, and the November ballot will carry proposals in 19 local governments to increase room taxes that the voters themselves will not be paying.

They include two competing measures on the San Diego city ballot that would jack hotel taxes to 16.5 percent to finance a new stadium for the San Diego Chargers football team and/or expand the city’s convention center.

The Chargers have threatened to move if they don’t get a new stadium – a ploy that sports teams often employ to reach into taxpayers’ pockets.

Another inherently unfair local levy is the steep tax that airport authorities routinely add to rental cars.

“Consumer facility charges” on car rental bills began with legislation for San Jose International Airport in 1999 but have since extended to every major airport.

Originally, the fees, now up to $45 per rental contract, were to be used solely for rental car facilities, but over time, permissible uses have expanded to other projects, some with absolutely no connection to rental cars. This year, Los Angeles International sponsored a bill to expand those uses even more.

One can be certain that other airports will seek the same authority, once again expanding the notion that levies on visitors are lucrative sources of money that carry no political downside.

The American Revolution began when colonists became fed up with taxation without representation. It’s alive and well in contemporary California.