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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Voluntary Pledge or Plain Bullying?

For San Diego's North County Times

Wouldn't it be nice if grocery stores and gas stations would sign pledges to stop taxing us with higher prices until they cut their business expenses an equal amount? They could protect their profits by eliminating waste, fraud and abuse in their operations. We customers could help them find the waste to prove they don't have a revenue problem, they have a spending problem.

Sound familiar? That's the thinking behind a local political activist group that's asking state office holders and candidates to sign its Promise to California Taxpayers pledge. Signers must promise to vote against all tax increases, amendments to Proposition 13 and increased taxpayer contributions to public employee pension plans.

In a recent opinion piece for this newspaper, Gary Gonsalves, North County's self-styled Grover Norquist and co-founder of Stop Taxing Us, claims his group has created "a tool to clearly facilitate communication between elected officials and California taxpayers." STU Director Brian Brady puts it more bluntly. He says the pledge helps office seekers to "articulate clearly that raising taxes is something they will never, ever do."

Brady claims the pledge is "absolutely voluntary." But Gonsalves promises to post the names and photographs of signers and non-signers alike on the STU website, together with video recordings of the signing or their refusal to sign, some of which may be unannounced to the interviewee.

That sounds more like coercion than facilitation to me. If you don't sign the pledge, there will be consequences. If you do sign it, you will be agreeing to place the interests of this small activist group above those of your politically diverse constituency.

I emailed two of the five signers, both of them candidates for the 76th District Assembly seat, to ask why they signed it. Farrah Douglas responded promptly. To this date I haven't received a reply from Sherry Hodges.

When I asked Douglas if she would check with STU before voting on tax bills, she told me, "I will be a true representative of my district's best interests and study each bill carefully and vote for what's best for my constituents, not what's best for me politically. I will make my own decisions without being swayed by lobbyists. I will not vote like a robot." She said she'd support tax reform that incorporates more fairness in the tax code.

Douglas's campaign website identifies wasteful government spending and higher taxes as major issues facing California. If she's elected, will she be guided by her commitment to independent decision-making on behalf of all her constituents, or by the heavy-handed influence of single-issue activists? Will Hodges make the same promise to her constituents as Douglas has? Stay tuned.

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