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After spending months attacking and belittling the Millionaire’s Tax (which polls showed had far greater support than his own Tax Measure), California Governor Jerry Brown struck a compromise last week with its backers – allowing a “hybrid” tax measure for the November ballot. While less progressive than the Millionaire’s Tax, it is a vast improvement over what the Governor had proposed – and will raise more revenue for the state. And without significant infrastructure to wage a statewide campaign, progressives had the weaker hand in negotiation.

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But the mere fact progressives had to stand up to a Democratic Governor before cutting a deal demonstrates the sheer arrogance of the Sacramento Establishment – who think they can co-opt a few big unions and ram their flawed proposals down our throats, like they’ve done before. Grass-roots activists never have a seat at the table, which makes this compromise so historic. Hopefully, Democrats will learn we should be their true partners when it comes to the budget.

The Governor’s initial proposal – which had the backing of the Democratic leadership in Sacramento, along with SEIU, the California Teachers’ Association & AFSCME, and major corporate funding – would have raised the sales tax by a half-percent, and raised income taxes for those making over $250,000 by 2% for only five years. The compromise crafted with some supporters of the Millionaire’s Tax would cut the sales tax increase in half, and raise the income tax increases to 3% and extend it to seven years. While not as clear cut as the Millionaire’s Tax, the compromise measure is far less regressive and far more equitable.

Given how popular the Millionaire’s Tax was polling – and given the broad coalition supporting it from the Courage Campaign, the California Federation of Teachers, the California Nurses Association and ACCE – it is incredible that Democratic leaders, rather than get behind and support the measure, spent months urging their progressive base to drop it. But sadly, this was nothing new. When it comes to crafting state budget policy, Sacramento’s leadership never bothers to consult the grass-roots – cutting deals with big business and a small handful of unions (read: SEIU & California Teachers Association), and then expecting the rest of us to take our marching orders.

And if some dare not go along with the program, they accuse us of emboldening the Republican enemy. Back in February 2009, Democratic leaders Karen Bass and Darrell Steinberg cut a deal with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to hold a special election with a series of awful ballot measures that wouldn’t come close to getting us out of the fiscal mess.

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But when progressives like myself urged opposing them, they said we were making common cause with the Tea Party – which caused a showdown at the State Democratic Convention. It gave progressives no joy to openly campaign against their legislative leaders, but the bottom line is we were never consulted when cutting that deal.

Once again, we saw the same thing happen with the 2012 tax measures. Governor Jerry Brown never bothered to work with progressives on a unified, tax strategy for the November ballot – choosing instead to co-opt the leadership of a few unions in Sacramento, rely on corporate funding for his measure, and add a “poison pill” that would kill the Millionaire’s Tax if it got more votes.

And while the Millionaire’s Tax continued to pick up more grass-roots support, the Democratic Establishment would warn us that having two tax measures on the ballot would jeopardize their passage. One State Senator angrily approached a UC student leader after a forum on education funding and warned him: “you gotta stop talking about that Millionaire’s Tax.” When he replied the Millionaire’s Tax was attracting a lot of grass-roots support on campus, the Senator (whose district includes one of the nine UC campuses) replied tersely: “well, students don’t vote.”

So given that the Millionaire’s Tax was so much more popular than Jerry Brown’s measure, why didn’t progressives hold firm and insist the Governor withdraw his proposition – or at least craft a compromise that was more progressive than the one we got? Simple. Progressives lack the infrastructure to wage a winning, statewide ballot campaign. The Courage Campaign has made important strides in recent years in online activism (as a state politics version of MoveOn), but is still a very young organization. And while the California Federation of Teachers had devoted financial resources, they are a much smaller union than California Teachers Association or SEIU.

At the end of the day, the compromise was something progressive backers of the Millionaire’s Tax can be proud of. Jerry Brown’s initial measure would have put 40% of the tax burden on a sales tax increase. This new compromise puts 85% of the new tax burden on incomes making over $250,000 and $500,000. Consider that California’s income tax code currently makes no difference between anyone making $50,000 and $900,000 a year – and you start to understand why this compromise is both good policy, and very good politics to bring our forces together.

Because the compromise is a new tax measure, there won’t be very much time to gather signatures to put it on the November ballot – which will require serious resources to make it happen. Now that the Democratic Establishment has learned they can no longer ignore or belittle progressive activists on this issue, it’s time we work together to get this compromise on the ballot – and fight to win voter passage in November, as a crucial first step for California.

paul hogarth

Paul Hogarth
Beyond Chron