Proposition 23’s evil twin

Proposition 26 may be even worse

With polls indicating that Proposition 23 is likely to lose on Nov. 2, attention should shift to its evil twin, Proposition 26. This initiative, bought and paid for by corporate interests, and popularly known as the “Polluter Protection Act,” could be the worst one on the ballot.

Currently, state and local governments institute fees to collect funds from businesses to offset the social and environmental problems they cause. Fees on tobacco products, for example, are used to fund health education; those on oil manufacturers pay for oil recycling and regulatory programs; and those on alcoholic beverages pay for the adverse consequences of alcohol consumption.

Proposition 26 would recategorize a broad swath of state and local fees as taxes and require supermajority (two-thirds) voter approval for fees that now require majority-vote approval. It would apply to fees passed by city councils and boards of supervisors as well as those passed by the Legislature.

It would also require two-thirds legislative approval for “any change in state statute that results in any taxpayer paying a higher tax.” This could be something as simple as an increase in the minimum wage. And, because it would be retroactive to Jan. 1, 2010, it could invalidate the gas-tax swap of 2009 and cost the state $1 billion in saved general-fund revenues.

As we’ve seen during state budget deliberations, getting two-thirds approval of tax increases is virtually impossible. Imagine that level of gridlock applied to every city and county in the state.

The backers of this initiative are big oil companies like Chevron and beer and wine makers like Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors. (Chico’s Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., which is otherwise an extraordinarily community-minded business, contributed $5,000 in support of the proposition.) They are cynically using the initiative process to shunt off costs on the taxpayers that they themselves should be paying.

Opponents include health, environmental and good-government groups up and down the state. They see that Proposition 26 would create years of litigation, wreak havoc on municipal finances and force taxpayers to pay for social and environmental problems corporations have caused. Let’s hope voters see that, too.