Thanks to New Law, This Week’s Local Tax Elections Mark End of a Deceitful Era

klineBy David Kline
CalTax Vice President of Communications and Research

On November 3, voters in many parts of the state will go to the polls to decide the fate of a variety of proposed tax increases. While there is nothing terribly unusual about this – local tax elections are as common as costume parties and pumpkin-spice lattes at this time of year – this round of elections does mark the end of a deceitful anti-voter practice in local elections.

Governor Jerry Brown recently signed AB 809, a CalTax-supported bill by Assemblyman Jay Obernolte that provides that when a local ordinance proposes to impose a tax or raise the rate of a tax, the ballot question must include the amount of money to be raised annually, and the rate and duration of the tax. Amazingly, several state lawmakers voted against this simple transparency measure!

The new law shouldn’t have been necessary, since local governments should have been putting this basic information on the ballot all along. However, anyone who has been following local elections knows that this hasn’t been the case.

Examples of shenanigans are plentiful in next week’s elections, which will be held under the old rules because AB 809 doesn’t take effect until January 1.

Take Measure C, in Hercules (Contra Costa County). Here is the ballot question: “To maintain Hercules’ financial stability; enhance fiscal accountability; prevent cuts to police services/crime prevention programs, street/pothole repair, youth/senior programs, and other essential City services; and maintain the number of police officers patrolling neighborhood streets and the local Hercules Police Department, shall the City of Hercules continue its existing, voter-approved utility users’ tax, with no tax increase, including low-income exemptions, independent citizens’ oversight, annual audits, and funding that cannot be taken by Sacramento?”

Voters who read that question will have no idea that a “yes” vote supports an 8 percent tax, and a “no” vote equates to 6 percent rate (and a savings of approximately $1 million every year).

It also is notable that the Measure C ballot question lists services that presumably would be funded by the tax, even though the money could be used for any purpose, including pay raises for city employees.

Another example comes from Los Angeles County. The ballot question that voters in San Marino will see when they vote on Measure SA: “Shall an ordinance be adopted to continue a Special Public Safety Tax for Paramedic Services, Fire Protection and Prevention and Police Protection in the City of San Marino?”

City officials who wrote the brief question purposely failed to mention that the tax would cost property owners more than $3 million in 2016-17 (at rates ranging from $457 per parcel to $2,611 per parcel), or that the rates would increase 5 percent per year in the subsequent three years.

In San Bernardino County, the ballot question for Measure A, proposing a tax in Rancho Cucamonga West-Side Community Facilities District 1, talks about “safe, clean, quality, well-lit streets, parks, playgrounds and recreation areas/facilities/restrooms,” but only casually mentions a “special tax to be levied,” with no rate or details provided.

Once again, local officials decided to play games, and to hide the real question beneath layers of propaganda. They wrote about “well-lit streets” and more, but never mentioned that the tax would range from $44.50 to $89 per year for residential units, and $40 per acre to $712 per acre per year for non-residential property. They also failed to mention that the tax will continue in perpetuity, that it will increase every year, or that the residential rates will double when a property is sold.

California’s new law will not solve all of the problems with skewed ballot descriptions, but it is a major step forward. It will be interesting to see whether pro-tax local officials were correct in believing that the use of more informative ballot questions will result in more tax measures being rejected.

November 3, 2015

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