This is the case in which HJTA, represented by Bell, McAndrews, & Hiltachk, convinced the California Supreme Court, as a stop-gap measure, to pull Proposition 49 from the November 2014 ballot. Prop. 49 was to be an advisory vote on whether Congress should propose an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would overturn the controversial campaign finance case Citizens United.
The Supreme Court’s final decision on the merits was issued in January. The Court concluded that the Legislature has power to investigate the need for legislation and, at least for “questions pertaining to amendments to the federal Constitution,” may exercise that power by placing an advisory measure on the ballot. The decision is limited to advisory votes on amendments to the Constitution. Footnote 6 states, “Because we conclude the investigative power permits advisory questions in connection with potential federal constitutional amendments, we express no opinion about other potential sources of authority for advisory questions.”
HJTA v. California Dept. of Forestry
This is the “Fire Tax” case, in which HJTA is challenging the fire prevention fee imposed on owners of habitable structures within the State Responsibility Area. We assert the “fee” is actually a tax, and is thus invalid because it failed to receive two-thirds support in either house of the Legislature. After getting buried by more than 13,000 pages of documents in response to our first set of discovery requests, HJTA legal team is creating a spreadsheet index to use as a summary of the evidence produced thus far.
In August, we successfully moved for certification of the class; thus, we are permitted to continue the case as a class action, representing all persons entitled to refunds (i.e., those who paid the “fee” and filed at least one timely petition for redetermination).
In January, the Court granted our motion for approval of the form of Notice to the Class. Notice has been completed via newspaper publication, direct email, and posting on the HJTA and Fire Tax Protest websites. The opt-out deadline was March 7, 2016. Eleven parcels asked to be excluded from the class. Shortly we will file a report to show the court that notice was accomplished and that eleven parcels opted out.
HJTA v. City of Pasadena
In this lawsuit, HJTA is challenging Pasadena’s 25% water surcharge for nonresidents. HJTA is prosecuting this suit as a class action as well. Our motion to certify the class was successful, and the trial court subsequently approved a joint proposal for notifying the members of the class. The notices were mailed on October 16, 2015, and by the opt-out deadline of December 2, a total of 113 parcels asked to be excluded from the class.
Over the parties’ objections, the Court ordered another round of mediation, scheduled for March 16, in hopes that the case will settle. The chances of settlement are slim and none, but we are required to attend with our client and participate in good faith.
In anticipation of the case going to trial, we served another round of written discovery on February 18 (interrogatories and requests for production of documents). The parties have stipulated to not take depositions until after mediation fails to produce a settlement.
HJTA v. Amador Water Agency
This is a new case that was filed on March 8, 2016. It is a petition for writ of mandate asking the Court to order the Clerk and the Board of the Amador Water Agency (AWA) to process a voter referendum and place it on the June 7 Primary Election ballot. The referendum would submit to the voters, for their approval or disapproval, a new rate structure adopted by the AWA Board. The referendum complied with all statutory requirements of the Elections Code, and the County Registrar of Voters verified a sufficient number of valid signatures. Despite this, the Clerk sent a letter to the proponents detailing three legal theories which the Agency believes justify its refusal to act. In our view, none has merit.
Our March 8 filing was an ex parte application for issuance of an alternative writ, and calendar preference in setting the case for hearing. The Court obliged our request by issuing the alternative writ that same day, ordering a compressed briefing schedule, and setting the case for hearing on April 1st.
Hickenlooper v. Kerr
This case from the 10th Circuit involves a federal constitutional challenge to provisions of the Colorado state constitution that limit the taxing authority of the Colorado Legislature by requiring voter approval of new taxes. HJTA is involved because the challenged provisions could be deemed analogous to Prop 13. The challengers argue that, by hamstringing the Legislature, these provisions violate the Republican Form of Governance clause of the U.S. Constitution.
In late November 2014, HJTA joined an amicus brief principally authored by NFIB (National Federation of Independent Business) urging the Supreme Court to grant certiorari and reverse the decision of the 10th Circuit. SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) granted certiorari on June 30, 2015, but immediately remanded the case to the 10th Circuit for reconsideration in light of the Arizona redistricting case. This development is generally considered to be a good sign for our interests.
Citizens for Fair REU Rates v. City of Redding
This case challenges a city-owned electrical utility surcharge imposed on its ratepayers a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) designed to capture the ad valorem property taxes that the utility would have had to pay if it was privately owned. PILOT revenue was transferred to the City’s general fund. The City did not codify the PILOT; rather, it was a line item in the municipal budget passed by the City Council biennially. The intermediate appellate court rendered a decision in favor of the ratepayers that is perfectly in line with our Roseville, Fresno, and La Habra cases.
Unfortunately, the SCOCA (Supreme Court of California) agreed to review this case for no good readily apparent reason. This is one of several Prop 218 cases that were correctly decided, and which SCOCA seems poised to overturn. The parties completed their briefing. HJTA filed an amicus brief in support of the ratepayers in August.
Jacks v. City of Santa Barbara
Pursuant to the terms of a franchise agreement between the City of Santa Barbara and private electrical utility Southern California Edison (“SCE”), SCE imposed on its ratepayers a 1% surcharge which it remitted to the City which placed it into its general fund. The surcharge was imposed after Prop 218 became law, and was never put before the voters for approval. The Second District concluded the franchise fee was an illegal tax masquerading as a franchise fee, and thus determined it violated Prop 218. The state Supreme Court granted review, and limited review to the following issue: Is the City of Santa Barbara’s 1 percent increase on its electricity bills (i.e., the 1 percent surcharge) a tax subject to Proposition 218’s voter approval requirement or a franchise fee that may be imposed by the City without voter consent?” This is yet another Prop. 218 case the SCOCA (Supreme Court of California) has strangely taken interest in. The parties completed their briefing in September. HJTA has filed an amicus brief in support of plaintiffs.
City of San Buenaventura v. United Water Conservation District
Challenge to an extraction fee imposed by a water conservation district on well users designed to encourage conservation and combat salt water intrusion from the sea caused by aquifer depletion. This fee fell primarily on the City of San Buenaventura because it used 6 major wells to provide water service to its residents. The City challenged the extraction fee on the basis that ground water management is water service within the meaning of Prop. 218, and that the fee did not satisfy the cost-of-service requirement thereof.
Court held that the extraction fee was not a fee for a property-related service within the meaning of Proposition 218. It specifically held that groundwater management is not within the meaning of water service, directly contradicting two Sixth DCA cases. The court ruled such fees are regulatory in nature, and thus subject to Proposition 26 instead. HJTA plans to file a merits amicus brief in support of plaintiffs/appellants in November.
In addition to our own cases, HJTA regularly files amicus curiae briefs (“friend of the court” briefs) in cases brought by others where we have determined that the case could affect taxpayer rights. Courts have often expressed appreciation for our perspective, and the contribution that our legal analysis adds to the case.