Tax Day Tea Parties: A blip or a trend?

If you ask Mark Meckler, California is once again about to lead a national anti-tax revolt.

Meckler, the California coordinator of the Tax Day Tea Parties that took place last week, says the events are bigger than a few thousand people at the Capitol, or even a million at 800 events across the country.

Instead, he outlined what he describes as a growing movement and one that he contends will blow apart the California budget deal at the ballot box next month. First on his target list: Proposition 1A, the May 19 ballot proposition that would extend sales and other temporary tax increases passed as part of the budget.

“Everybody realizes that California is the tax-and-spend heartland of America,” Meckler says. “They know that if we can crush 1A here in California, we can and will turn our attention to the rest of the country and let politicians know that if they pursue these tax-and-spend policies, they will pay the price at the ballot box.”

There is, of course, a historical precedent for what Meckler describes: 1978’s landmark Proposition 13, which slashed property taxes by 57 percent and limited new increases. Experts disagree, however, on whether Proposition 13 had any lasting national impact.

 Often referred to as “the mother of all tax revolts,” Proposition 13 profoundly affected California government: It permanently altered the relationship between the state and local governments. By cutting locally generated revenues, Prop. 13 forced local entities to go to the state for bailouts – a process that continues to this day. The measure was approved, in part, because of what was then dubbed the “obscene surplus” in the state treasury and widespread public anger at reports of people being taxed out of their homes. In the end, two-thirds of the electorate voted in favor of Proposition 13.

But these times might be very different.

“It [Tax Day Tea Parties] appears to be sort of manufactured news,” said Jean Ross, executive director of the non-profit California Budget Project, which analyzes the state budget in terms of its impact on low-and moderate-income people. Ross was referring to the heavy coverage that Fox News and its affiliates gave the protests. The Project doesn’t just write policy reports, Ross said, but follows public opinion polls “pretty closely.”

“I don’t see signs of groundswell,” Ross said, adding, “The president’s economic agenda continues to receive very high ratings in public opinion polls.”

One irony here is that Proposition 1A may very well go down hard – and it might not mean anything. A March Public Policy Institute of California poll found that it had only 39 percent support.

But how Americans feel about taxes in general might be very different.

According to a Gallup poll released last week, 53 percent of Americans approve of expanding the federal government, at least temporarily, to deal with the financial crisis; 48 percent said they think the federal income tax they pay is “about right.” Sizable majorities approved of passing higher taxes on corporations and well-off individuals.

While there have long been scattered protests every April 15, the day federal income taxes are due, there’s no question that this year was different. Estimates for the number of protests ranged from a low of 300, though most published accounts seemed to tend closer to Meckler’s figure on 800. He claimed the media account of about 5,000 people at the Capitol in Sacramento was about four times too low – part of what he characterized as a media attempt to marginalize the events.

“We were definitely in excess of a million people on the streets yesterday [nationwide],” Meckler said. “We’re all laughing at the media because they’re so blatantly dishonest.  It’s absurd. They hate mainstream America, it’s obvious. They’re saying the tea parties were tiny and virtually nonexistent.”

The tea parties got their initial push from a televised five-minute outburst on Feb. 19 by CNBC’s Rick Santelli on the floor of the Chicago Stock Exchange. Later widely labeled the “rant of the year,” Santelli took aim at Obama’s mortgage bailout plan by saying “the government is promoting bad behavior” by “losers.” Near the end, he said “It’s time for another tea party.”

After that, Meckler said, “All these Facebook pages started popping up.” A Grass Valley attorney who describes himself as a former Republican, Meckler said he put up one of his own, saying he’d like to hold a protest. He started hearing from people, he said, even though he hadn’t even posted a date.

On Feb. 27, he was one of about 150 protestors who showed up at the Capitol, a group he said included “retirees, business owners, and homeschoolers.” At that point, he said, he knew it could build into something bigger.

“They all express something very similar—they had gotten to the point where they felt totally disenfranchised from our system,” Meckler said. “I came home inspired by all these people who felt exactly the same way.”

Meckler added that he hasn’t been involved in politics and was never “a public figure of any kind.” Like others involved in the tea parties nationwide, he characterized the events as non-partisan. He also rejected the idea that the events were sponsored by FoxNews or the Republican National Committee (RNC). The event did get financial help from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, an anti-tax group named after the Republican co-author of Proposition 13.

But one major media outlet, FoxNews, covered the protests extensively in its broadcasts and dispatched anchors to events across the country. The RNC also sponsored an April 15 protest where participants could send the president a “virtual tea bag.”

Lenny Goldberg, executive director of the California Tax Reform Association, expressed little concern over the events. He said he doubted whether any Democrats would be voted out of office over tax votes, and contended that the Tea Parties followed the playbook of “the party of Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist.”

“The only thing that is holding the [Republican] party together is anti-tax [sentiment],” said Goldberg, whose group seeks the closure of billions of dollars in loopholes in the state’s tax code.

“What’s the big surprise? I don’t see anything different than I’ve seen for years. It’s the same old, same old.”
Next: A look at the corporate tax changes that came out of the budget deal.

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