Did you know that there was an election last Tuesday? Not many voters did, and the tax-and-spend crowd likes it that way. In this little publicized election, 29 out of 40 local tax increase measures passed.
Michael Coleman, Founder of the California Local Government Finance Almanac, notes the significance: “There were more local revenue measures on ballots this November than any of the four prior gubernatorial or presidential elections,” he said. “More were passed than ever before…”
Some might interpret these election results as a new acceptance of taxes by California voters. But for those of us who have observed government behavior for more than a few decades, we see a more sinister explanation. Specifically, that the tax raisers have become expert at gaming the system to pass tax and bond measures.
It is no coincidence that these tax increases were placed on an obscure odd year ballot, avoiding even year elections when gubernatorial and presidential races bring out more voters. But there is more.
Highly paid political consultants tell local officials not to publicize tax elections to the entire community, but to target only their supporters. This means running a stealth election, communicating (in the case of school bonds) with only administrators, the local teachers union, the PTA, and parents who have children in school. In tax elections, tax raisers use public employee union members to carry the torch.
A few years ago, at a seminar conducted for officials interested in passing tax measures, one consultant told those assembled to avoid town hall meeting style events. These, he said, bring out the “nuts.”
Since it is illegal for officials to use public resources (including public funds) to urge a vote for or against a political issue, consultants frequently counsel tax backers on the best way to wage “informational” campaigns. This includes sending out material stating all the good things a bond or tax measure will do, but stopping just short of violating the law by telling people how to vote.
Consultants tell their clients to always talk about the benefits a measure will bring — if somebody starts to talk about taxes, “move away from that and talk about what the benefit is.” If compelled to take about taxes, officials are counseled to put the cost in simple, friendly sounding terms that usually begin with “it’s only.” “It’s only a few cents a day,” or “it’s only a few dollars per month.” (A Los Angeles Community College District Chancellor once compared the cost of a bond to the cost of a “latte a month.”) Officials try to make it sound like the coming tax increase is trivial and that anyone who is opposed must be a cheapskate.
Even before a tax proposal is placed on the ballot, in most cases, officials have gained an advantage. They authorize surveys of voter sentiment to help them determine what sort of measure will most likely pass. Using taxpayer funds on these polls is justified by saying the information allows them to “better serve” the community.
Another advantage that gives tax raisers a leg up over taxpayers is that under law the agency sponsoring the new tax or bond gets to write the ballot question. That’s why the word “tax” is never seen.
However, when it comes to providing full disclosure to taxpayers on the impact of a local tax or bond measure there is good news that will impact future elections.
Gov. Brown has signed Assembly Bill 809 by Assemblyman Jay Obernolte (R-Big Bear). Sponsored by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, this bill requires that rate and duration of a local tax measure, as well as the amount of estimated revenue to be raised, be placed on the ballot label for voters to review. The ballot label, a short description of the measure, is typically the last thing voters see before voting.
Now, when cities, counties and school districts place taxes on the ballot, critical information will be made clear and it will be more difficult for local officials to place their “thumbs on the scale” to unfairly alter the outcome. But, while the passage of AB 809 is a step in the right direction, the tax raisers still possess the motivation (i.e., self-interest) and the resources, to skew most local elections. So, if you are a taxpayer concerned about all the taxes, fee and charges you have to pay, you need to pay attention to every election, even the obscure ones.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.