In the state where the national tax revolt began a dozen years ago, a shot was fired Tuesday that is bound to be heard around the country: Californians voted to raise their taxes.
Proposition 111, a measure that would allow the state gasoline tax to double over the next five years to pay for repairing and expanding the state's deteriorating highway system, was approved by a 52 percent to 48 percent vote.
Its passage is designed to alleviate some of the state's horrendous traffic jams, but whether it signals a new readiness of voters nationwide to raise taxes -- the way California's famous Prop. 13 ballot initiative in 1978 helped to trigger the anti-tax movement -- was a matter of much debate yesterday.
Leaders of the bipartisan coalition that supported Prop. 111, including Gov. George Deukmejian (R) and several Democratic legislators, cautioned against interpreting the vote as more than an endorsement of taxes to meet a specific, serious need. Elected officials and policy analysts around the country also were wary of overinterpreting Tuesday's vote.
In Washington, lawmakers involved in budget talks with the Bush administration discounted the significance of the California vote. "If the California voters, in spite of the plea for improved freeways and transportation, had nonetheless rejected a gasoline tax, that would have been read as further evidence of the tax revolt of the country," said House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.). "Having approved it, it doesn't necessarily mean that every member of Congress is going to run down and put into the hopper proposals to raise taxes."
"You can't play this off against George Bush's lips because this is a specific and earmarked tax," said Democratic pollster Peter Hart. "Voters are willing to support them when they know exactly what they are going to get for it."
"You can make a much stronger case that California was following the rest of the nation on Tuesday, not leading it," said Christopher Zimmerman, chief economist for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Zimmerman noted that California's 9-cent-a-gallon levy is the fourth-lowest state gas tax in the country and only slightly higher than half of the 16.3-cent average for the rest of the 50 states. "Most other states raised their gas tax two or three times in the 1980s," he said. "In 1989 alone, 23 states raised the gas tax. California is playing catch-up."
Gas taxes were not the only state levies that increased during the supposedly anti-tax decade. States also raised cigarette, alcohol and sales taxes -- to the point that, in 1990, state taxes as a percentage of overall tax burden were 3 percentage points higher than they were in 1980.
But given California's reputation as a trendsetter, some conservatives worried that perceptions triggered by Tuesday's vote may create a reality of their own. Economist Arthur Laffer, a Californian who helped to enact Proposition 13, said passage of Proposition 111 "really does end the tax revolt in California and sends a message to Washington which I dislike intensely."
Lots of contrary messages are being sent from other states, however. Last November and December, tax-increase ballot proposals in Wisconsin, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Michigan and North Dakota all were defeated. This fall as many as 10 states are expected to have tax-cut or tax-limitation measures on the ballot.
Even in California, Prop. 111's passage was being subjected to widely varying interpretations.
"It means the 1980s are definitely over," said Los Angeles City Council member Mike Woo (D). It is "the end of an era in which voters in California demanded services without being willing to pay for them."
Democratic gubernatorial nominee Dianne Feinstein said the Prop. 111 result "signals a new day." She said "people are saying for the first time since Proposition 13, 'I want to put my money where my mouth is.' "
Pollster Mark DiCamillo noted that the initiative passed despite a low turnout, which meant an above-average proportion of tax-hating older Californians voted for it.
On the other hand, Steven Merksamer, a leading Republican strategist in the state, noted: "What strikes me is that almost 48 percent opposed the tax increase despite the fact that there was no organized political opposition, virtually no money was spent against it and the entire political establishment of both parties and virtually all the major newspapers said you have got to do this. It would be a complete misreading to say that people are no longer opposed to taxes. They still don't trust the politicians."
Prop. 111 grew out of a compromise negotiated last year to break a partisan deadlock in Sacramento over raising spending limits and funding improvements in the state's clogged roads and tattered public transit systems. The legislature passed a 9-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax increase to fund a 10-year, $18.5 billion transportation program but stipulated it could not go into effect unless voters approved a change in the spending limitation formula based on increases in population and national consumer prices. Prop. 111 significantly raised the spending ceiling by replacing the price inflation index with one based on personal income.
Staff writers David S. Broder and John E. Yang contributed to this report.