If you have a problem with the upward distribution of the Republican tax cuts, you already have a problem with California’s 12-cents-per-gallon gas tax hike levied last year.
But wait. Isn’t Proposition 6, the ballot measure to repeal the gas tax, backed by Republicans?
Yes, but taxation of this nature should, and does, make odd compatriots. Progressives, if in agreement across the spectrum of social and economic issues, have a duty to transcend politics and vote yes on Proposition 6.
For the sake of reaching as many as possible, let’s define progressive as anti-Trump Democrat and leftward. We tend to believe in government spending on social services and public works, and that eases the sting of April 15. Redistribution: It’s the same ancient common-good axiom that built the very first governments. Social services need more money, and taxes are the way to get there. But not all taxes are the same in achieving just economics for those paying them.
The original progressive federal income tax was passed in the 1890s in response to a grassroots movement for economic justice. Demanded was a revenue alternative to tariffs that protected corporations and consumption taxes that hit lower incomes the hardest. But the same Supreme Court that upheld segregation ruled this income tax unconstitutional. It would have levied a 2 percent tax on incomes over $88,000 in today’s terms.
Progressive taxation made sense to most of the country until the 1980s, when President Reagan, making strange bedfellows of Christian conservatives, working-class nationalists and millionaires, pushed through the proto-Trumpian Economic Recovery Act of 1981. Then there was Dubya, the Tea Party, Trump himself and inequality that can nearly put a socialist atop the Democratic ticket.
And now we have California, supposed ultra-blue bane of Trump’s DC, dumping a regressive tax on a population already pummeled by an unconscionable cost of living. I mean, come on. It’s not enough to normalize homelessness — hell, create homelessness — and rebrand the middle-class American Dream as four people in a one-bedroom having regular dinnertime discussions about health care insecurity? California, sometimes your blue is the color of an ice pack. And now you’re the creative equivalent of “The Apprentice” when it comes to tax policy. You’re playing to the plutocratic wing of the Democratic Party when you should be seeing which way the wind blows in the Bronx. It’s not about whether transportation infrastructure is worth paying for. It’s not about fossil fuels or size of government. It’s not about taxes, but rather taxes that hit hardest the people who can least afford to pay them. It’s about failing to legislate from a place of economic justice.
Twelve cents a gallon might sound negligible. Admittedly, when I was driving 70 miles round trip for a job in Woodland Hills, my increase amounted to a little over $150 annually (of course, that’s on top of the $458 gas tax I was already paying). But I’m fortunate — as many of you are — to have a livable salary and a benefits situation that will basically absorb such a thing. This is less true for those earning minimum wage or a few bucks more. Less true for all of us when gas taxes compound as planned.
Regressive taxation: It’s not for progressives. It’s not necessary. Come up with a better plan for roads and bridges and I’ll support it. The possibilities are numerous. Tax Uber for every driver without health insurance. Or, more soberly, create an algorithm that accounts for vehicle purchase price and fuel efficiency. The Craigslist used-car market flies under the radar. New cars in the bottom decile are exempt. More expensive cars incur higher DMV fees but get a break for fuel efficiency, and the whole scale is graduated. Raise the tax on premium gas only. Granted, that Lamborghini will cost you a golden hammer and a sapphire sickle, but if the idea chafes too much you can alternatively pay the top marginal income tax rate in the early 1960s: 91 percent.
This time the truth is in the antonyms: progressives don’t do regressive. Whether it’s nickels or fortunes, we must care as much about economic justice as social justice. With today’s inequality, we must scrutinize every source of and excuse for the ever-widening gap.
Repeal the gas tax now before it adds up to something serious and we wonder how it could have happened.
Vote yes on Proposition 6.
John Srebalus is a music industry professional, activist and housing advocate. He works with the Glendale, Pasadena and South Pasadena Tenants Unions.