A victory for California taxpayers

This past week a direct attack on Proposition 13 was resoundingly voted down by the California State Assembly. Assembly Constitutional Amendment 1 would have changed a key element of Prop. 13 by lowering the current two-thirds vote needed to pass local bonds and special taxes — including parcel taxes — to just 55 percent.

Bond debt and parcel taxes are paid by adding extra charges to property tax bills, sometimes for decades, which are not subject to Proposition 13’s one-percent cap. The two-thirds vote requirement is a crucial taxpayer protection because while everyone gets to vote on these local measures, only property owners pay for them.

If ACA 1 had been approved by two-thirds of each house of the state Legislature, it would have gone on the ballot, where it would have needed only a simple majority to pass. That would have changed Proposition 13 to allow tax increases for anything defined as “infrastructure” to pass with the approval of only 55 percent of the electorate in any (or every) subsequent election.

Taxpayers face a treacherous landscape in California. Legislative Democrats have more than super-majority control over the Assembly, meaning seven Democrats could oppose ACA 1 and it still would have passed. Taxpayer advocates, led by Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, were outnumbered by about 15 to 1 in the halls of the Capitol as lobbyists for local government entities including cities, counties, special districts and firefighters raced from office to office looking for last-minute support.

During debate on the Assembly floor, legislators who opposed ACA1 made compelling points. Democrat Ken Cooley from Rancho Cordova emphasized the importance of a two-thirds vote to ensure community consensus and discussion on how taxpayer dollars are spent. Republican Jay Obernolte from Hesperia rightly questioned whether lowering the two-thirds vote was even necessary. Indeed, in November 2018, 79 percent of local education parcel taxes proposed to voters were approved by a two-thirds vote.

Republican Melissa Melendez from Murrieta poked holes in the proponents’ major talking point of ‘we should let the voters decide’ by saying they already have. A previous effort to lower the two-thirds vote for taxes, Proposition 56 in 2004, was defeated by a nearly two-to-one margin. Meanwhile, voters have not once, but four times in 41 years reinforced the importance of the two-thirds vote at the ballot box with Propositions 13, 62, 218, and 26.

Last week, it appeared that many members of the Assembly had heard the voice of the voters. When the dust settled, ACA1 had 44 votes, well shy of the 54 votes needed for passage. Seventeen Democrats had joined all Republicans in voting no or abstaining.

This important taxpayer victory should be a fresh reminder for legislators that Proposition 13 continues to have the widespread support of nearly two-thirds of state voters, and that touching the third rail of California politics is still bound to electrocute your political career.

Last week’s victory speaks to the power of grassroots politics. Tens of thousands of overburdened taxpayers, including HJTA members, called and emailed lawmakers ahead of Monday’s vote. The outcome of all these efforts: bipartisan resistance to this attack on Prop. 13 and taxpayers.

The defeat of ACA1 does not signal the end of the war, but the start of the newest battle in the long-running fight to protect Proposition 13. And the next skirmish could be just ahead. ACA 1 is eligible to come up for a reconsideration vote, which could happen anytime between now and the end of the legislative session on Sept. 13.

Assembly Democrats can’t be happy about that. Anyone who has to run for reelection should be hoping they’re never asked to vote against Proposition 13 again.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.