Quietly Protecting the Interests of Taxpayers

A recent behind the scenes dispute in the City of Huntington Beach illustrates how Proposition 218 the Right to Vote on Taxes Act continues to protect the interests of taxpayers. Thanks to 218 and lawyers for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association city officials have been convinced to allow voters to have the final say on the Huntington Beach Property Tax Reduction and Protection Measure.

As rough as California taxpayers have it today it was even worse prior to 1996 when voters approved the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association sponsored Right to Vote on Taxes Act. HJTA wrote Proposition to 218 in response to cities and counties around the state that were imposing new taxes in the dead of night without consulting the public and imposing new or increased assessments on property owners — often without their knowledge. And if local taxpayers objected once new charges were in place a combination of court decisions and an artificially high signature requirement combined to make it nearly impossible to rescind or change a tax using the initiative process.

The onerously high signature requirement came about as the result of local officials’ fear of term limits in the early 1990s. After the passage of Proposition 140 the statewide term limits measure for legislators and constitutional officers independent movements sprung up across the state to use local initiatives to limit terms for city council members. Scared to death that their political careers might come to an end city representatives were able to convince the Legislature to change the rules for local initiatives by burying new requirements in a much broader bill that was promoted as making city governance more efficient. In cities that had required initiative circulators to obtain signatures from 15 percent of the number of voters who had cast a ballot in the last gubernatorial election the new standard became 15 percent of the number of registered voters nearly doubling the signature requirement in some communities.

In addition to requiring approval of voters for new taxes and allowing meaningful participation of property owners for new assessments the Right to Vote on Taxes Act addressed the signature requirement for local initiatives dealing with tax matters. Instead of the unrealistically high threshold established to keep citizen sponsored measures off the ballot for tax measures Proposition 218 adopted the state standard 5 percent of the number of voters participating in the previous gubernatorial election and applied it to local communities. Although still not easy to qualify a tax related measure for the ballot at least now dedicated citizens willing to put in time have a reasonable expectation of success. Unless of course city officials do not understand Proposition 218 or choose to ignore it in the hopes that local signature gatherers will not know the difference.

A case study for Proposition 218 has been recently playing out in Huntington Beach. The city’s current Mayor Don Hansen is a taxpayer advocate and an elected leader tackling the tough issue of pension reform in the fourth largest city in Orange County. When Hansen took office he promised to deliver the elimination of a parcel tax that is subsidizing public employee union pensions. The initiative campaign was launched in January.

In the case of Huntington Beach taxpayers would prefer to extend to officials the benefit of the doubt that they were acting in good faith when they told Huntington Beach Mayor Don Hansen and his volunteers their property tax reduction measure would need signatures from 15 percent of registered voters to make the ballot. The city had actually reached out for an opinion from an attorney who advertises expertise in Proposition 218 and specializes in helping cities circumvent the intent of the measure. However the city clerk was looking in the wrong place for solid advice.

When informed of the city clerk’s misreading of the law Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association attorney Tim Bittle fully briefed her on the particulars of the law which is part of the state constitution complete with supporting opinion from the Office of the Attorney General. Based on the overwhelming evidence presented the city clerk agreed to comply with the signature standards established by Proposition 218.

The result of this intervention means the signature threshold to qualify the tax protection measure drops from over 25000 to just over 3600. The Mayor and his volunteers will clear that threshold well before the deadline and the voters will be able to decide the issue in November.

The final result of HJTA’s intervention in Huntington Beach is a win-win for both taxpayers and the city. The cost and inconvenience of a lawsuit has been avoided and Proposition 218 moves on quietly protecting the rights of taxpayers.

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.