CALIFORNIA'S Proposition 13, passed by the voters in 1978, is generally credited with having ignited the tax revolt that swept across America like a prairie fire. California voters, fed up with rising taxes and distrustful of government's ability to control spending, clamped restrictions on both state taxes and expenditures. Within a few years, voters in other states took similar steps - and sent Ronald Reagan to the White House. So it's arresting that voters in California, the country's most populous state and a bellwether for many national trends, last week approved four tax measures. Is the tax revolt over? Are pro-tax counterrevolutionaries marching on Washington?
California voters approved three bond issues for public schools, higher education, and prisons. More important, they approved Proposition 111, which will double the state gasoline tax over five years - the added revenue to be used for highways and public transportation - and which relaxed the so-called Gann limit on state spending.
In each case, the voters opened their wallets in response to specific and readily apparent needs. Prop 111, in particular, appealed to urban motorists who are choking on smog and congestion and witnessed the collapse of highways in the earthquake last fall. The measures were by no means broad authorizations to Sacramento to raise and, at lawmakers' discretion, allocate large new sums. And even Prop 111, despite bipartisan backing and heavy promotion, eked out only a narrow victory.
So did the California votes signal a growing willingness by the American people to tax themselves to repair and expand vital infrastructure? Probably so. Did they signal a more general voter acquiescence to higher taxes to, say, fund new programs or narrow budget deficits? It's hard to read that meaning in the results. And did the votes reflect renewed public confidence in government's ability to control itself and spend wisely? Doubtful.
The ripples from the California votes likely petered out well short of the Washington beltway. Those who argue that Congress and the White House have little choice but to raise federal taxes may or may not be right, but they would be imprudent to say the white flag was hoisted in California.