Dan Walters: California Democrats will propose easing of parcel tax voting rules

dwalters@sacbee.comNovember 13, 2012 

Dan Walters

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 upon 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 one in Sacramento 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.

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