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State, national columnists

Californians willing to accept new taxes

By From page A11 | November 16, 2012

Proposition 30, Gov. Jerry Brown’s sales and income tax hike, was easily the most contentious measure on last week’s ballot.

As they were passing Proposition 30, however, millions of California voters were also deciding whether to impose even more taxes on themselves to relieve budget pressure on local governments and school districts – and most of them also passed.

A report compiled for the League of California Cities said that overall, 71 percent of 240 local tax and bond measures – bond issues are automatic property tax increases – passed.

Within the array of those local measures, however, there were distinct differences of outcome because the state constitution requires different levels of voter approval for different kinds of proposals.

If, for instance, a city proposes a sales tax surcharge for general purposes, such as the ones in Fairfield, Vacaville and Rio Vista last week, it requires only a simple-majority vote. And statewide, 80 percent of those passed.

But if the tax is for a special purpose, it requires a two-thirds supermajority vote, and those had a much lower passage rate.

There’s also a vote requirement differential for bond issues – a two-thirds margin for local governments, but just 55 percent for most school bonds.

However, if any local entity proposes a parcel tax – a special kind of tax in which all property parcels are assessed the same dollar amount – approval also requires a two-thirds vote.

Confusing? Absolutely, but it typifies the conglomeration of often-conflicting provisions of our very unwieldy state constitution, which has been amended more than 500 times and is the nation’s second-longest governing document.

It also is the background for what could be a manifestation of the Democrats’ newly won supermajorities in both houses of the state Legislature.

Among other things, it means that Democrats are empowered to place constitutional amendments on the statewide ballot without any Republican support and legislative leaders – Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, particularly – want to reduce the vote requirements for local government and school district taxes, particularly those parcel taxes.

If schools could raise more money locally through parcel taxes, it would reduce the state budget’s school finance burden.

Twenty-five school parcel tax measures were on the ballot last week and 15 of them passed, including three in the $200-per-parcel neighborhood. And all but one of those that failed achieved more than 50 percent approval, indicating that were the vote requirement to be reduced, parcel taxes could generate a substantial flow of revenue.

Democratic leaders want to use their new power incrementally, rather than frontally, and making parcel taxes easier to enact is high on their agenda.

Dan Walters is a columnist for the Sacramento Bee. Reach him at [email protected]

Dan Walters


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  • rlw895November 17, 2012 - 2:24 pm

    It was good to read this column. A couple of years ago, while serving on the FSUSD Measure C Citizens’ Oversight Committee, School Board member Perry Polk and I proposed lowering the vote required to pass parcel taxes for school maintenance from 2/3 (66.7%) to 55%. That will match the requirement for school construction bonds. At that time we could not generate any legislative interest. I hope that will change now. The fact that such parcel taxes require a 2/3 vote now is one of those "often-conflicting provisions of our very unwieldy state constitution." Why do we have to get a 2/3 vote to maintain facilities that we only needed a 55% vote to build in the first place? We shouldn't. The requirement should be no higher than 55% and preferably 50%. It is wise for the legislature to move “incrementally,” starting with giving local governments more avenues to raise taxes by a popular vote. I say put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to lower the 2/3 to 55% in more instances, and to lower the 2/3 for school maintenance to 50%. The investment the public has made in school facilities through voter-approved bonds needs to be protected by putting a priority on school maintenance, and that can be achieved by making parcel taxes for school maintenance easier to pass compared to other parcel taxes.

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