What do the California Legislature and a corrupt Old West town have in common? Okay okay that was too easy.
Recently I sat down and watched a vintage Hollywood western. Turned out the seemingly upstanding town mayor was really a crook. While he smiled and tipped his hat to ladies and their babies on the street behind the scenes he was the boss of a gang of thugs headquartered at the local saloon. Whenever the mayor passed the word of a gold shipment the gang went out and robbed the stage. Through most of the movie the mayor kept the respect of the townspeople while the whole time others were doing his dirty work.
What qualities do many Sacramento lawmakers share with this fictional small town mayor? They don’t want to take responsibility for their actions that harm the public.
State legislators have spent the state into a $14.5 billion deficit. Since public resistance to new taxes to make up the difference is growing some representatives are looking for other ways to keep the gravy train running.
So what do you do if you are a state lawmaker who believes that increasing spending on programs is more important than maintaining a healthy economy or respecting the needs of taxpayers? You pass laws to make it much easier for local governments — cities counties and special districts — to increase taxes. You then tell your constituents you are just making the system "more democratic" or that you are allowing taxpayers to "invest in the future." You never admit that you are raising their taxes.
Here are three bills that provide perfect examples of efforts to increase taxes while the authors claim to have clean hands.
Assembly Constitutional Amendment 10 by Los Angeles Assemblyman Mike Feuer would eliminate the two-thirds vote protection for a new category of bond debt — "transportation infrastructure" and lower the required voter threshold from two-thirds to 55%. Voters may remember that Proposition 39 eight years ago lowered the 55% threshold for school construction bonds. That measure has already added billions of dollars to property tax bills and ACA 10 could easily add billions more. This is because bond debt places a lien against property to guarantee repayment and is not subject to Proposition 13’s 1% cap.
Senate Constitutional Amendment 17 by State Senator Joe Simitian is a carbon copy of a bill he introduced last session SCA 8. Both measures seek to lower the two-thirds vote threshold for school district parcel tax increases to 55% from the two-thirds mandated by Proposition 13. Parcel taxes are especially regressive because the burden falls disproportionately on the owners of modest homes.
The third major attack on taxpayer protections SCA 12 by Bay Area State Senator Tom Torlakson would eliminate voters’ right to have the final say on new taxes for storm water and urban runoff management. Passage would mean that local governments could impose a fee increase for these services without a ballot election by affected property owners. Again any fee increases from SCA 12 would not count against Proposition 13’s 1% tax cap.
These lawmakers need to be reminded that California is a high tax state and does not have a revenue problem. To paraphrase the motto of Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign "It’s the spending stupid." A number of academic studies confirm that governments at all levels in our state after adjusting for inflation and population growth have more money — in some cases much more money — than prior to the passage of Proposition 13. For example tax raisers like to "fly the bloody flag" of education but in reality we now spend thirty percent more in inflation-adjusted dollars per pupil than we did in 1978.
We will not solve our problems by passing the tax-raising buck to the locals so that more bucks can be squeezed from taxpayers.
Jon Coupal is President of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest taxpayer organization — which is dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and promoting taxpayers’ rights.