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State, national columnists

Parcel tax changes could bring big battle in California

By From page A11 | January 09, 2013

The California Legislature’s Democratic leaders want to use their newly minted supermajorities to do things that they could not do before, but are leery of doing things that might alienate voters and jeopardize those supermajorities.

They prefer, therefore, an incremental approach to using their two-thirds legislative votes, thus slowly warming voters to the exercise of their new power, rather than shocking them.

One likely way they’ll wield their new authority is a constitutional amendment to reduce the voter approval margin for local government and school district parcel taxes from two-thirds to either a simple majority or 55 percent.

It appears to be popular and they see it as an extension of lowering the vote requirement on school bonds from two-thirds to 55 percent some years back, and also a small, if significant, erosion of Proposition 13, the iconic 1978 ballot measure that made it tougher for state and local governments to levy new taxes.

Parcel taxes are a form of property tax, but instead of being based on property value, they generally impose the same dollar amount of tax on every property parcel, regardless of size or value.

Many school districts, faced with stagnant or even declining state support, have been asking local voters to approve parcel taxes with varying degrees of success.

There is, however, a complicating factor – a new state appellate court ruling that spanks school districts for deviating from the one-size-fits-all concept of parcel taxes.

Some districts have successfully asked their voters to approve differing levels of tax on different kinds of property – lower ones for homes and higher ones for commercial properties and/or taxes based on square footage of properties.

Those variations have made some parcel taxes more closely resemble value-based levies of traditional property taxes. In a case involving the Alameda Unified School District, the First District Court of Appeal said those taxes violate a law requiring “uniform” rates of parcel taxes.

If the ruling prevails in the state Supreme Court, Alameda Unified and other districts that adopted parcel tax variations may have to refund many millions of dollars in revenues to commercial landowners.

They want the Legislature, therefore, to not only lower the threshold for approving parcel taxes, but validate the more creative, albeit illegal, ways in which such taxes have been levied and, perhaps, protect them from having to make the refunds.

Responding to those demands would make writing a parcel tax amendment much more complicated because it would bring business interests, seeing it as an assault on Proposition 13, into the political equation.

It could become, in brief, the high-octane supermajority dust-up that legislative leaders want to avoid.

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

Dan Walters


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  • Rick WoodJanuary 09, 2013 - 9:31 pm

    This is a much better piece than the last one Mr. Walters wrote on this subject. This court ruling on parcel taxes is interesting. It’s likely that Alameda USD got too cute, but I hope that doesn't result in a too extreme rule the other way. If it does, the legislature should fix it. Parcel taxes should be charged uniformly, but there should be an exception allowed when one property owner has two or more parcels with a single use. Then the parcels should be taxed as one. Undevelopable parcels should also be an allowed exception and be charged less, or zero. What to do in such cases should be the decision of the public agency placing the tax measure on the ballot. Most will choose to do the work to identify and allow the exceptions. Next, if the threshold for parcel taxes is lowered, I believe it should be lowered to 55% in all cases EXCEPT for parcel taxes directed to school facility maintenance, rehabilitation, modernization, or replacement, which should be a simple majority. The reason the threshold should be lower for that purpose is school bond measures (secured by "true" property taxes) are already at 55%, and a parcel tax to care for those facilities should be less. Doing that will give a slight edge to parcel taxes for school facilities, but that's as it should be. Voters have already said as much when they passed Prop 39 in 2000 ("a few years back" as Walters says).

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