The California Farm Bureau has joined a broad business coalition backing a ballot measure that seeks to protect Californians from unwarranted tax increases. The Taxpayer Protection and Government Accountability Act targets “hidden taxes” on agriculture in the form of fees, defends property tax limits and sets a higher bar for passing special taxes from local governments.

The initiative has qualified for the November 2024 ballot but faces headwinds from Democrats in the Legislature, who recently passed a measure to override it. Gov. Gavin Newsom has also stepped into the foray, partnering with California Attorney General Rob Bonta to file a lawsuit seeking to throw it out.

At its annual meeting last week, the farm bureau urged members to get involved and donate. The coalition estimates it needs to raise up to $80 million to pass the measure.

To proponents, the measure does not block new tax increases but creates more accountability and transparency.

“[The act] gives you the right to vote on all future tax increases,” said Steven Fenaroli, who directs political affairs at the farm bureau. “This is about making sure that farmers and ranchers continue to have their voices heard and that we don't let unelected bureaucrats continue to raise taxes and fees on us.”

Fenaroli pointed out that California has the highest personal income and sales taxes and the trend is continuing, with the Legislature proposing more than $200 billion in new fees and taxes this year, though Newsom vetoed many of those measures out of fiscal concerns. Fenaroli also channeled the frustration of farmers who have for years pleaded with the State Water Resources Control Board to not raise fees further. He went on to list local fees for implementing the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and the cost for burn permits from local air districts.

Ben Granholm, a senior account executive at the political affairs firm Swing Strategies, lambasted a steady stream of gas tax increases approved every July, arguing the public is not involved until the referendum happens and that although the increases have raised $5 billion in revenue, the state still has the worst roads in the nation.

Ben GranholmBen Granholm, Swing Strategies

At the opening of the annual meeting, President Jamie Johansson said he was optimistic voters will approve the ballot measure.

“No more of having regulators—who are not accountable to the voters—simply increase our licensing fees or taxes,” said Johansson. “There has to be accountability.”

He noted the success of the alliance in 2020, when the California Business Roundtable recruited the farm bureau and raised $70 million to defeat Proposition 15, an effort to overhaul a property tax system that voters approved in 1978 under Prop. 13. The 2024 initiative is a “rare opportunity for ag to play offense,” according to Fenaroli. Joined by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and the California Business Properties Association, the roundtable returned to the farm bureau with the new idea.

Their taxpayer protection act would define all government charges as a tax, specifically any fees, and require elected officials to approve the new taxes, a move to hold those officials accountable. It would also prohibit another Prop. 13 makeover, as proposed in 2020.

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The groups aim to restore a 1996 tax measure, Prop. 218, which required a two-thirds vote for all special taxes. They charged that a 2017 measure created a loophole by allowing for simple majority votes.

“This is nothing new. This is nothing wild or far-fetched,” said Fenaroli. “This is literally just restoring the will of the voters.”

But Democrats in control of Sacramento are setting up roadblocks for the initiative. California Secretary of State Shirley Weber, who previously represented portions of San Diego in the Assembly, crafted a summary on the initiative telling voters it would limit the ability of governments to raise revenues. Tino Rossi, vice president at Swing Strategies, called the description biased but said taking the secretary to court would likely be unsuccessful. Weber’s office has yet to assign a number to the proposition.

Along with the Assembly resolution seeking to block the initiative and Newsom’s lawsuit, the initiative is competing with an opposite ballot measure that would lower the threshold for local governments to raise taxes to finance housing and infrastructure projects.

Newsom, along with a handful of mayors, is charging that the measure would make sweeping changes to California’s fundamental government structure and block the state’s ability to respond to major challenges like a deficit. The California Supreme Court is gearing up to make a decision in the case soon.

With a $68 billion state budget deficit taking shape, Republicans in the Legislature have blasted Democrats for overspending. Rossi viewed the shortfall as a critical messaging point for the taxpayer protection act.

Yet farm bureau members worried the act would be dead on arrival. Fenaroli responded that the farm bureau decided to endorse the measure because it is “not only popular, but possible, winnable.” Granholm pointed to voter polls indicating the coalition can win the fight by a sizable margin and noted that many urban Californians have little trust in their local governments.

“People don't necessarily oppose raising taxes,” he said. “Their problem is when that tax money isn't going to where it was promised.”

The voter support, explained Rossi, has evolved despite “Big Sacramento” attempting to defeat the initiative.

“We are taking head on the largest and most influential political forces in California—from the Legislature, the governor, the teachers’ union, the nurses’ union, police, fire, public safety,” he said. “For the last four months, they've done everything they can to keep this measure from being voted on.”

He added: “For the first time in 40 years, we've got them on the ropes.”

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