Capitol Alert
By Christopher Cadelago
August 31, 2015

  • GOP lawmakers last supported a tax deal in 2009
  • Gas, cigarette taxes on the table this year
  • ‘Shaming’ and recall threats are part of anti-tax arsenal

Jon Fleischman, the conservative activist, blogger and political consultant with the ear of many at the Capitol, was giving another interview to a right-leaning talk radio show one recent afternoon when he was asked about the possibility of Republican lawmakers supporting a tax increase.

“There’s always a chance,” Fleischman said, loosely summarizing a quip he attributed to Mark Twain: “Always hold on to your wallet when the Legislature is in session.”

As the first year of the session winds down with transportation and health care among the issues on the table, whether lawmakers move to boost revenues is among the most intriguing questions on the docket.

Proposals include increasing the gas tax by 12 cents per gallon and raising vehicle registration fees by some $35 a year.

Proposals include increasing the gas tax by 12 cents per gallon and raising vehicle registration fees by some $35 a year, imposing a new levy on managed health care plans and adding a $2 tax to each pack of cigarettes. Democrats have also discussed extending temporary sales and income taxes set to expire in 2016 and 2018.

A handful of Republicans would have to join majority Democrats to raise taxes in the special session – a political risk even a vigilant tax-fighter like Fleischman now believes is unlikely.

Yet he warned it was just six years ago when then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger “strong-armed” three Republicans in each chamber to vote to temporarily raise taxes. As part of an effort to close a massive $41 billion deficit in 2009, GOP leaders cut a deal that included about $14 billion a year in taxes despite repeated vows to protect taxpayers.

New circumstances could insulate wayward Republicans from retribution. A ballot measure approved by voters in 2012 allows lawmakers to serve a maximum of 12 years in either the Senate or Assembly, eliminating the need to step down after eight or six years, respectively, to run for the other house. Those terming out of office in some cases won’t run again and don’t have to worry about angering the electorate.

Another difference is a switch to a top-two primary system, which reached the ballot as part of the 2009 deal when then-Sen. Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, sought the change before casting his vote for tax increases. The system could protect an incumbent against a foe from the same party.

Under the old rules, a Republican had to win the party’s primary election to move on. Now, they just have to finish in the top two in June to advance to the November runoff. As long as a Democrat runs, a more conservative GOP challenger likely would have a hard time elbowing out the incumbent.

While the primary system will not shield every incumbent, “it offers an additional base of support for those members that might be tempted to sign on” to a tax-raising deal, said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

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