By Mark Baldassare, senior fellow, Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the Orange County Register on October 10, 1999
With little fanfare, President Bill Clinton recently vetoed the $792 billion tax cut sent to him by the U.S. Congress. Clinton had warned months ago that this Republican tax cut was dead on arrival, but GOP leaders persevered, pinning their hopes on what they thought would be strong public support for their plan. However, by the time they sent their tax bill to the White House, it was obvious from both the national polls and the voices of their local constituents that public opinion had not swung in their favor.
Once again, Clinton had made the Republican Congress look foolish and out of touch.
The negative reaction of Golden State voters to the tax-cut issue has special significance to policymakers and pundits in Washington. After all, California was Ground Zero for the tax revolt that remains a political fact of life after nearly two decades; it was the birthplace of Proposition 13 and the home of the Reagan Revolution.
So, when Californians in droves told pollsters that their congressional representatives should "just say no" to federal tax cuts this time around, there was cause for serious reflection and political analysis. Is the Tax Revolt dead? Are taxes suddenly trendy?
To answer these questions, we look to the latest Public Policy Institute of California Statewide Survey of 2,013 adult residents. While the evidence is not clear-cut - it is sometimes puzzling and even contradictory - we are able to draw some conclusions about why the tide turned and if it marks a permanent shift in the publicís views on tax policy.
We find that at least one constant is still in place: Californians donít like paying taxes.
Many Californians continue to think that their federal, state, and local taxes are too high. Sixty-five percent describe their federal income taxes as too high. More than half of those who complain about the federal income tax say the amount of taxes they pay to Uncle Sam are much too high. Large numbers of residents also complain that their state and local sales taxes (53 percent), state income taxes (49 percent), and local property taxes (43 percent), are too high.
At the same time, the California public gives little support to the big federal tax cuts proposed by Congress. Only 28 percent in the PPIC Statewide Survey favor using the federal budget surplus to pay for a large tax cut of about $800 billion over 10 years.
In contrast, 69 percent support the presidentís plan for a smaller tax cut that allows more spending on Medicare and other government programs. Only 51 percent of Republicans supported the tax cut proposed by the GOP Congress. A whopping 83 percent of Democrats and 76 percent of independent voters sided with the president.
In the Republican heartland Orange County, the Inland Empire, and San Diego County only 34 percent favored the GOP proposal.
Perhaps the most surprising result is that the proposed tax cut was even opposed by the Californians who thought their federal income taxes were too high.
Among those who complained that their federal income taxes were much too high, only 39 percent supported the big tax cut, while 57 percent favored the smaller tax cut.
Why are Californians telling pollsters they are opposed to a large tax break? Most importantly, a congressional "credibility gap" is contributing to the lack of public support. Today, the public has a much higher regard for the president than for Congress. In our survey, 55 percent said that Clinton was doing an excellent or good job in office. Only 26 percent gave the Congress high marks for the work they were doing for the country.
Clintonís big lead over Congress in public approval ratings goes a long way in helping us understand why people side with him on policy issues. Many of the people who favor the presidentís plan for a smaller tax cut are the same ones who say they like the job he is doing.
And although the Washington media have recently declared that the public has come down with a severe case of "Clinton fatigue," it appears that the Congress has an even bigger problem on their hands.
After their unpopular efforts to remove Clinton from office, people may no longer see the GOP Congress as a source of sound policy decisions. The depth of the credibility problem is reflected in the reactions to the GOP tax-cut plan - what could have been a no-brainer to the tax-loathing public generated intense criticism and rejection instead.
Finally, Republicans in Congress failed once again to get their message across to the American people, while Clinton touched a raw nerve.
The Congress never explained to the public how their $792 billion tax cut over 10 years would translate into real money for working families, and in the absence of facts the tax-cut proposal was simply too abstract for the average taxpayer.
In contrast, Clinton connected with the deep public concern that the Social Security and Medicare systems were in big trouble and would need cash from the budget surplus to stay afloat. Tangible programs won out over intangible tax cuts. Moreover, Clinton held out hope that the voter could have it all under his plan, a moderate tax cut and the preservation of government programs that benefit many Americans.
We should know a lot more about the future of the tax revolt by the end of 2000. Californians will decide whether or not to pass an initiative on the March primary ballot that would lower the vote threshold to pass local school bonds from a two-thirds to a simple majority. Voters will also be asked to pass billions of dollars in state and local bonds to improve parks, schools, roads, water facilities, and infrastructure.
For now, though, it appears that the demise of the federal tax cut has less to do with a change in the California mind-set about taxes than with a multitude of political missteps in Washington.