Jerry Brown
Paul Wellman

“I like to pay taxes,” the venerable Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said. “With them, I buy civilization.”

Then again, Holmes never tried getting elected as a Republican in California.

As this year’s deadline for filing returns approached, Governor Jerry Brown found himself still enmeshed in a gnarly battle with Republican lawmakers about the proper level of taxation in the state. Brown has called for a statewide election to let taxpayers decide whether to extend temporary higher rates on sales, income, and vehicle license levies, but minority GOP legislators have maintained unanimous opposition to his proposal, refusing to provide the four votes the Democratic governor still needs to put such a measure on the ballot.

Capitol Letters

With the date long since passed to organize a special election on the matter in June, the governor is now studying a range of other political and legal maneuvers he might use to get the issue before voters. With polls showing support for his plan — two-thirds of voters even say they’re unaware they’ve been paying higher rates for two years — Brown has been traveling to districts of reluctant Republicans to meet with teachers, law enforcement officers, and other public employees who support him, in an effort to pressure lawmakers to back his proposal. So far, all he’s gained is a growing feeling of frustration.

“To ask [Republicans] to let the people vote on taxes would be like the Pope allowing Catholics to vote on abortion,” the governor snapped in one TV interview. “It’s a dogma.”

Brown’s characterization of the Republican stance on taxes is not all that overstated; the state GOP has taken an absolutist position against any tax increases in any form, while party activists and national anti-tax organizations have vowed to work to defeat incumbents, not just for supporting any new taxes but also for voting to put a tax measure on the ballot or even for negotiating with Brown on the issue.

While it’s an article of faith among many GOP voters that Californians pay the highest taxes in the nation, an analysis by the Sacramento-based California Budget Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, shows a more complex picture. While having some of the highest rates on sales, corporations, and the incomes of wealthy people, California generally ranks near the upper middle of the 50 states in measuring the amount of taxes residents actually pay as a percentage of personal income. For example, the study shows that California ranks as follows:

• 21st out of 50 in the percentage of income paid as state taxes — 6.37 percent, compared to the national average of 5.92 percent. It ranks 29th in local taxes — 3.79 percent, with the average among all states calculated at 4.45 percent.

• 15th in combined state and local taxes, with Californians paying 11.27 percent of their incomes, compared to 11 percent nationwide, to nonfederal governments.

• 9th in state individual income taxes — 2.8 percent of personal income, compared to 2.04 percent in all 50 states.

• 34th in property taxes, which translates to 2.72 percent of personal income, compared to 3.31 percent nationally.

• 18th in combined state and local sales taxes — 2.73 percent, compared to 2.58 percent for all states.

• 4th in corporate income taxes — 0.60 percent of personal income, nearly twice as much as the 0.33 percent calculated for all states.

“California,” concluded Jean Ross, executive director of the organization, “is a moderate tax state.”

The complete California Budget Project report (titled Who Pays Taxes in California?), along with other studies by the group, is available on its Web site

THIS JUST IN: Taxpayers sweating and struggling to get their tax returns off to the IRS and the Franchise Tax Board can relax because they actually have an extra couple of days, according to a report by Jim Puzzanghera in the Los Angeles Times this week. Here’s how it works:

April 16 is Emancipation Day, an official local holiday in Washington, D.C., which this year marks the 149th anniversary of President Lincoln freeing slaves in the District of Columbia, his first such action during the Civil War. Because the 16th falls on Saturday in 2011, and government being government, the local holiday is actually celebrated on Friday, April 15.

Under federal law, the IRS treats local and federal holidays the same; as a result, the filing deadline, which cannot fall on a weekend, is Monday, April 18, this year. California follows the federal timetable, according to the Times, so state taxpayers don’t have to file until Monday either. Such a deal!


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