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Will Two Competing Tax Initiatives Spell Loss at the Ballot Box for Both?

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Prop 38's Molly Munger. | Photo: Neon Tommy/Flickr/Creative Commons License

As most Californians who follow politics know by now, there are two measures on the November 2012 ballot, which, if passed, will increase taxes to fund public education.

The first is Proposition 30, Governor Brown's tax measure. This ballot measure would temporarily increase the sales tax by a quarter of a cent and increase income taxes on those making above $250,000. The increased revenue would go to fund public education. Last year's budget was passed assuming that Prop 30 will pass. If Prop 30 does not pass, so-called trigger cuts to education will go into effect.

Brown tried a number of times, to no avail, to get the needed two-thirds of both legislative houses to agree to his tax proposal. Finding no success in the legislature he is going directly to the people through the ballot initiative process.

But Governor Brown was not the only one with an idea to increase taxes to fund education. Attorney Molly Munger, the daughter of uber-wealthy Charles Munger, the vice-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, had a proposal of her own. Munger paid to gather the signatures to get Proposition 38, the competing tax measure, on the ballot. Prop 38 would raise income taxes on almost everyone in California and would also put the increased revenue toward public education.

There are a number of differences between the two measures, and I do not purport to give anything here but a very high level overview of the two proposals.

I believe there should be something disturbing about Proposition 38. Even if you whole-heartedly agree with the substance of that proposal, its route to the ballot is an uneasy one -- at least for me. Prop 38, like so many other ballot initiatives, was put on the ballot by someone elected by no one, and arguably accountable to no one.

If Munger's purpose is a broad one -- of increasing taxes to fund education -- it may have behooved her to put the tens of millions she is putting into supporting Prop 38 (and opposing Prop 30) into supporting Prop 30.

Voters now face what may be a confusing choice between two competing measures purporting to do a similar thing through similar means. It seems to me that this was a missed opportunity for two individuals with comparable goals to use a terribly imperfect process to achieve a common aim. Instead Munger tread her own path, and with it, risks losing not only her personal battle, but what seems to be from a general perspective, her larger war.

Recent polls put those supporting Prop 38 far behind the margin needed to pass the measure. Prop 30 is hovering around fifty percent support.

Jessica Levinson writes about the intersection of law and government every Monday. She is an Associate Clinical Professor at Loyola Law School. Read more of her posts here.

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