The Occupy movement, which has been criticized for lacking specific goals, is now taking steps to redefine the political debate in California with a ballot initiative to raise taxes on the wealthy in order to increase funding for education and social services.
The Courage Campaign, which describes itself as a network for bringing “progressive change” to the state, submitted the measure on Monday, the same day that Gov. Jerry Brown unveiled his own initiative to increase taxes to fund education and public safety.
Also on Monday, an East Bay group called the 99 Percent Solution announced plans to take out a full-page advertisement in Tuesday’s San Francisco Chronicle detailing “The 99%’s Proposal,” a national plan to create jobs, reduce the disparity between rich and poor and control spending.
“These kinds of acts, especially if they are sustained, represent a move toward institutionalization, you are moving from diffuse and largely symbolic gestures to a more focused effort to do real politics,” said Jack Citrin, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at University of California, Berkeley. “What we are also seeing, sparked by the Occupy movement, is a number of political actors taking on the issue of income inequality and higher taxation for the wealthy.”
The Courage Campaign’s California Funding Restoration Act, intended for the November 2012 ballot, would raise income taxes by 3 percent for individuals earning more than $1 million a year, and by 5 percent for those earning more than $2 million.
“This gives everybody who had any reason to occupy Wall Street or Main Street a chance to take that energy and channel it into a measure that can actually tax people who are the very top of the pyramid,” said Rick Jacobs, founding chairman of the Courage Campaign, which is working on the tax initiative along with the California Federation Teachers, which represents 100,000 teachers statewide.
“It is important to give people an opportunity to put their ideas into law,” Jacobs said. “In California, we can actually create and vote for change.”
Brown’s plan would raise income taxes by up to 2 percent on millionaires and high-income earners and increase the statewide sales tax by half a cent, to 7.75 percent. Families making less than $500,000 a year would not see their taxes increase. The taxes, which would expire in 2016, would raise about $7 billion to fund education and public safety.
“The stark truth is that without new tax revenues, we will have no other choice but to make deeper and more damaging to cuts to schools, universities, public safety and our courts,” Brown said in what he called “an open letter to the people of California.”
Earlier this year, long before the Occupy protests began, Brown had tried to convince Republican state legislators to extend tax increases that were set to expire at the end of June — or to allow voters to decide whether to extend those taxes. The extensions, Brown said at the time, would close a $26.6 billion budget gap, while preventing the state from making even deeper cuts to education and social programs.
But no Republican legislator would support Brown’s plan. As a result, the cuts to higher education approved by Brown and Democratic legislators increased from $500 million to $650 million, leading the University of California and the California State University systems to raise tuition by 9.6 percent and 12 percent respectively this summer.
Those tuition hikes, the latest in a years-long series of increases, have fueled Occupy protests on campus and at meetings of the UC Board of Regents and the CSU Board of Trustees. The initiative submitted Monday marks the first step protesters have taken to try to effect change at the ballot box.
The Courage Campaign and Brown used similar language in their public statements about the initiatives, emphasizing taxes on millionaires. Backers of the measures will have 150 days to gather signatures to qualify for the ballot. Both proposals are likely to face stiff opposition from Republicans.
“For more than a decade, Sacramento Democrats have been coming up with one tax raising scheme or another – none of which have worked,” California Republican Party Chairman Tom Del Beccaro said in a statement Monday. “The answer to our budget and revenue problems lies not in taking more money from those already working but in finding work for those that are not.”
The Chronicle ad, which organizers said was funded with $8,500 in donations from 100 people around the Bay Area, emphasizes job creation as well as tax increases.
“Our political system is broken,” said Marti Roach, a consultant from Moraga who led the ad campaign. “A lot of people identify with the Occupy movement, but they don’t see constructive solutions coming out of it. This ad will start a broader dialogue in our society about real solutions.”
The two initiatives are among eight separate measures to increase taxes that may be on the November 2012 ballot. The proposals would raise a combined $40 billion in new revenue for everything from higher education and public schools to a new state bank and green energy jobs.
Critics say the competing tax measures may confuse voters, increasing the likelihood that they will be defeated.
“Clearly the state has a budget problem that hasn’t been fixed,” said David Kline, vice president of communications and research at the California Taxpayers Association, based in Sacramento. “It would seem that if the taxpayers are asked to weigh in on more than $40 billion in taxes, I can see people saying ‘no’ to all of them.”
But Thad Kousser, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, said research shows many voters take their best guess when confronted with a raft of ballot measures.
In 1988, for example, voters chose one of five competing initiatives to reform vehicle insurance.
“The conventional wisdom is that voters get confused, throw up their hands and say no to everything,” Kousser said. “But sometimes having multiple measures for the same thing changes the debate from whether we should go through with reform to how do we get there.”