It’s no secret that tax-and-spend interests have hated Proposition 13 since its adoption by the voters in 1978. Immediately after passage, Prop. 13 was the target of numerous lawsuits and legislative proposals seeking to create loopholes that would allow government to grab more tax dollars from California citizens.
These constant attacks compelled taxpayer advocates to go back to the voters with multiple initiatives to preserve the letter and spirit of Prop. 13. These included Prop. 62 in 1986 (voter approval for local taxes); Prop. 218 (closing loopholes for local fees and so-called “benefit assessments”); and Prop. 26 (requiring “fees” to have some nexus to the benefits conferred on the fee payers).
However, the latest tax-grabber to treat homeowners as ATMs is state Senator Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys. If he gets his way, Californians will be spending a lot more on water and sewer service. He seeks to do away with the critical “cost of service” requirements for water rates as well as treat “stormwater runoff” (the rain that runs down street gutters) the same as “sewer service,” opening the door to virtually unlimited — and unvoted — sewer rates.
As to the latter proposal, Hertzberg has introduced Senate Bill 231. This proposal would attempt to rewrite Prop. 218 with a statute to allow for stormwater to be included under the definition of “sewer,” meaning that it would no longer be subject to a Prop. 218 election. This is not a minor issue and, in fact, when the city of Salinas attempted to charge residents for “storm water runoff” as part of their sewer bill, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association sued and won. The published decision inHJTA v. City of Salinaswas a significant victory for homeowners as the city was attempting to load up its “sewer” service with all kinds of costs unrelated to sewer service including street sweeping.
Of course, the real problem with SB231 is that it attempts to rewrite part of the California Constitution with a mere statute. This is a big no-no. The city of Salinas decision was an interpretation of Prop. 218 which added Articles XIIIC and XIIID to the California Constitution. Courts are likely to take a dim view of a legislative override of their interpretation of the state constitution.
To add insult to injury, Hertzberg has also introduced Senate Constitutional Amendment 4. While this bill is basically intent language and needs to be refined, the point of this bill will be to undermine Prop. 218’s proportionality and cost of service requirements. Under the state Constitution, rates for property related fees (water/sewer/refuse) need to be equivalent to the cost of providing the service. Taxpayers fear that SCA 4 will ultimately overrule another taxpayer court victory in the city of San Juan Capistrano which upheld the concept of “cost of service.” This decision has been misinterpreted by Gov. Brown and the media as prohibiting the ability of water districts to create tiered water rates. In truth, tiered water rates — charging more for higher levels of water use — can be legal if the municipality can demonstrate that the extra water costs more.
What Hertzberg and big government bureaucrats want to do, however, is to use water rates as another opportunity to engage in social engineering. They wish to charge those water users they perceive as “bad” more per gallon than those users they perceive as “good.” The beauty of “cost of service” rates, however, is that they are fair for everyone: You pay for what you use.
More importantly, when government deviates from “cost of service” requirements, it expands the opportunity for them to do what they do best — extract more money from citizens.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
[This column appeared in the Orange County Register on February 12, 2017; to read it there, please click here.]