The city of Los Angeles has been caught with its hand in the cookie jar. The city’s hands are experienced at this maneuver but they don’t usually get caught. In this case the California Court of Appeal has ruled that the city broke the law by imposing a tax increase on cell phone use that did not receive approval of voters. Voter approval is required by the expressed language of the California Constitution; specifically Proposition 218 the Right to Vote on Taxes Act.
Now highly paid city officials are singing the blues that the coming fiscal year’s budget will be short an anticipated $167 million. In the past this would have been no problem as the members of the City Council the highest paid in the nation would make up any budget shortfall by snatching up Department of Water and Power revenues that have served as a city slush fund for years. However a recent $30 million raid on the DWP has been blocked by another court.
There will be more posturing and blustering by public officials as they tell sad stories about the programs that must be cut if the court’s decision is not overturned by the state Supreme Court. However in a city where most new revenue goes to support pay and benefits for the highly paid municipal workforce the real issue about which they are concerned is their own welfare.
They should have seen this coming. The constitutional language mandating voter approval is so clear even dissembling elected officials should be able to figure it out. In response to abusive taxes often on utility users that were imposed by communities throughout the state without voter consent the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association authored Proposition 218. The Right to Vote on Taxes Act was enthusiastically approved by voters in 1996. It clearly stated that new taxes that were directed to a city or county general fund must be approved by a simple majority of voters — taxes that are earmarked for a specific purpose already required a two-thirds vote approval by Proposition 13. Proposition 218 also clarified the way in which fees and assessments could be imposed guaranteeing the public a stronger say in their implementation.
So hostile were members of the Los Angeles City Council to the idea that the public would gain more control over local taxes they approved a motion by then Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg directing the city attorney to prepare a suit that would seek to invalidate Proposition 218. After reviewing the issue the city attorney reported back that a suit would be without merit.
Now the City Council — I think I mentioned they are highly paid — may claim that they are victims of term limits and therefore have no institutional memory of these events but this does not pass the laugh test. The Council has well-compensated legal advisors to point out to them that Proposition 218 and its right to vote provisions are embedded in the California Constitution and therefore take precedence over the whims of city officials.
And we at the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association would have been pleased without charge to direct them to Article IIIX C SEC. 2 (b) that states "No local government may impose extend or increase any general tax unless and until that tax is submitted to the electorate and approved by a majority vote."
Could it be that the City Council knew they were openly violating the law? We’re shocked. That moisture in corners of the eyes of Los Angeles officials over the loss of this revenue is crocodile tears although they are genuinely sorry they got caught trying to filch 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.