Dan Walters: Vote tests two big gut issues -- crime and taxes -- in California

dwalters@sacbee.comSeptember 30, 2012 

California's voters turned sharply to the right on taxes and crime during the 1970s, and the two visceral issues dominated its politics for the next two generations.

This year, however, with the state's political hue having drifted from red to at least purple, and perhaps blue, a half-dozen ballot measures are testing whether its voters are still tough on crime and taxes.

Two multibillion-dollar tax increases (Propositions 30 and 38) and a change in corporate taxes (Proposition 39) frame the taxation question, while a repeal of the death penalty (Proposition 34), a modification of the state's "three strikes, you're out" law (Proposition 36) and harsher sentences on human traffickers (Proposition 35) test whether attitudes on punishment have softened.

California's political ambiance had drifted leftward in the 1970s as the Ronald Reagan era faded, so when crime and taxes suddenly erupted as defining issues, it caught the state's liberal politicians by surprise.

Then-Gov. Jerry Brown, a vocal foe of capital punishment, vetoed a death penalty bill but was overridden by the Legislature. He appointed an anti-death penalty chief justice of the Supreme Court, Rose Bird, only to see her later ousted by voters.

Brown also opposed Proposition 13, the landmark property tax cut, but quickly reversed course after it was passed overwhelmingly.

Democratic legislators also felt the backlash in the 1970s.

Three liberal state senators were ousted by voters on the crime issue and a flock of "Proposition 13 babies" came into the Legislature. A Republican who had championed the death penalty, George Deukmejian, replaced Brown as governor.

Ballot measures occasionally tested sentiments on both issues, but they remained largely unchanged for 30-plus years. Just during the past decade, voters canceled income and sales tax increases imposed by the Legislature and rejected a modification of the three-strikes law.

But what now?

Brown is back in the governorship and sponsoring a sales and income tax increase (Proposition 30) but three major polls indicate that passage is no better than a 50-50 bet. A rival income tax measure (Proposition 38) is faring worse and only the relatively minor change in corporate taxation appears to be a likely winner.

The death penalty repeal is trailing in the latest Field Poll, but a change in the three-strikes law, lowering the possibility of a life sentence for a third crime, does appear to have gained voters' favor, although the opposition campaign has yet to emerge. Cracking down on human trafficking is likely to pass, but if it does, it underscores voters' historically tough attitudes about sex and exploitation crimes.

California may have become a blue state, but its voters may also still see red on crime and taxes.

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