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Californians won’t vote on taxpayer measure this November

The California Supreme Court ruled that, while voters can revise the California Constitution, this initiative would have substantially altered the state’s basic plan of government. A ballot initiative in this case isn't proper, said the justices.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — The California Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the Taxpayer Protection and Government Accountability Act will not appear on the November ballot.

The high court’s decision means Golden State voters won’t get the chance to weigh in on how the state imposes taxes, because this ballot initiative isn’t the proper way to revise the state’s constitution, decided the jurists.

“We therefore issue a peremptory writ of mandate directing the secretary [of state] to refrain from taking any steps to place the [ballot initiative] on the November 5, 2024, election ballot or to include the measure in the voter information guide,” the high court wrote.

The decision is a major win for Governor Gavin Newsom, who along with the Legislature and former state Senate President Pro Tempore John Burton had asked the high court for review. It’s rare for the California Supreme Court to take a case that hasn’t worked its way through the system, and it’s also unusual for courts to stop voters from having their voices heard on ballot questions.

The measure, initiated by voters, would have given Californians final say over any new or increased state taxes by requiring a statewide vote. It would apply to any new or increased tax approved since 2022.

Attorneys in favor of the measure argued that all political power lies in the hands of the people, and that the Legislature doesn’t have unilateral control over taxation. Opponents said the measure already was causing headaches for local governments, who were making budget decisions based on its possible passage.

The Supreme Court in its decision wrote that the only question it considered was if the proposed law could validly be enacted through an initiative.

“The changes proposed by the [initiative] are within the electorate’s prerogative to enact, but because those changes would substantially alter our basic plan of government, the proposal cannot be enacted by initiative,” the justices wrote. “It is instead governed by the procedures for revising our constitution.”

Voters can change the California Constitution through a ballot initiative, the court added. However, when they want to “revise” it, the proposed change must either go through a constitutional convention and ratification, or be submitted to the people by a supermajority of the Legislature.

An attorney for the governor and Legislature made that argument before the high court at a May hearing. Margaret Prinzing argued that taxation is a foundational legislative power and that the act would alter that power, in effect revising the constitution. Because of that, the high court needed to remove the measure from the ballot.

Associate Justice Goodwin H. Liu at the May hearing pointed to a provision of the act that would prohibit local governments from setting fees, including fines for traffic violations and overdue library books.

Proponents of the measure denounced the high court’s ruling.

“Unbelievable!” Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, posted on X, formerly Twitter. “Taxpayer Protection Act removed from the ballot by a partisan California Supreme Court. Any semblance of impartiality of the judiciary is now gone. But we're not done fighting for taxpayers and protecting Proposition 13!”

Coupal, along with Taxpayer Protection Act co-chairs Matthew Hargrove and Rob Lapsley, continued to blast the decision in a press conference.

Lapsley called the decision one lost battle in a bigger war. However, the men said the ruling on the ballot initiative is now the law of the land and they have no recourse.

The co-chairs noted they’re committed to fighting two tax-related, proposed constitutional amendments that will appear on the November ballot.

Assembly Constitutional Amendment 1 would drop the threshold from two-thirds to 55% in local elections for general obligation bonds and some special taxes for certain housing and infrastructure projects.

Assembly Constitutional Amendment 13 would require any ballot measure attempting to raise a vote threshold for future ballot initiatives to pass by the margin it proposes. It would have affected the Taxpayer Protection and Government Accountability Act, if the latter had made it to voters.

ACA 13’s author, San Diego Democratic Assemblymember Chris Ward, said in a statement that the initiative will remain on the November ballot.

“I am pleased the California Supreme Court ruled the Taxpayer Protection Act will not be on the November ballot by going too far in revising the state constitution, but the fight is not over to protect direct democracy rights through majority vote,” Ward said. “ACA 13 will remain on the ballot because special interests continue to threaten the voters’ right to decide elections by majority vote.”

Several Republican lawmakers slammed the high court’s ruling on social media.

“This is an outrageous attack on our system of government,” posted Assemblymember James Gallagher, his chamber’s minority leader. “We must now admit that our CA government has become completely corrupt, unrepresentative and unfair. And we must consider whether we will continue to abide it.”

State Senator Brian Jones, the Senate minority leader, said in a post that the court had failed in its duty to Californians and the democratic system. The supposedly nonpartisan government branch had caved to pressure from the governor and Democratic lawmakers.  

Supporters of the justices’ ruling praised the high court.

“We are grateful the California Supreme Court unanimously removed this unconstitutional measure from the ballot,” a Newsom spokesperson said in an email. “The governor believes the initiative process is a sacred part of our democracy, but as the court’s decision affirmed today, that process does not allow for an illegal constitutional revision.”

Both Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas and state Senate President Pro Tempore Mike McGuire lauded the decision. The legislative leaders in statements said it will enable government to keep paying for services like police and fire protection.

“This is a very important win for the state and local governments, not just because it takes a very problematic measure off the ballot but also because it recognizes that governments’ authority to manage public finance is fundamental to our constitutional scheme,” wrote attorney Michael Colantuono, who authored an amicus brief in the case, in an email. “It will eliminate the uncertainty that has hovered over state and local finance since the measure qualified for the ballot.”

Categories / Elections, Government, Regional

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