MEASURE EE FAILURE COULD BE A TURNING OF TAX TIDE
Against formidable odds, taxpayers scored a significant victory in June against big progressive interests. Measure EE, sponsored by the Los Angeles Unified School District, would have imposed a $500 million annual property tax on all property owners within the district’s boundaries.
Because the tax was being advanced by the second-largest school district in the nation, its potential impact was obviously huge. But Measure EE was more than just a local tax proposal. The outcome of the election was bound to have ramifications throughout the state, not just in Los Angeles. That is why so many political interests were watching the campaign and its outcome so closely.
LAUSD backers claimed that they had a huge disadvantage because Measure EE, as a “special tax” under Proposition 13, needed a two-thirds vote of the voting electorate to pass. This complaint is not compelling given that EE didn’t even receive a simple majority of those voting.
Against this claimed dis-advantage, let’s balance all the advantages possessed by the Measure EE proponents. The first is money. At latest count, it appears that the backers spent five times more than the opponents. It is always easier to raise campaign funds from those who stand to personally benefit financially from a ballot measure because the return on investment is so high. Public-sector labor unions, especially the teachers’ union, were the biggest contributors. Also contributing to help pass the tax hike were various interests that do business with the city and were vulnerable to “requests” or retaliation from Mayor Eric Garcetti. Only a fool would believe that most of these campaign contributions were truly voluntary.
The second advantage also has to do with money, but not your typical campaign contributions. No, this has to do with the extraordinary amount of taxpayer dollars and resources expended by the district to push Measure EE. Displaying large banners on school grounds, using school children as political conduits to their parents with pro-Measure EE “informational” material, requiring teachers and staff to engage in thinly disguised campaign activity — all of this gave proponents a huge public- relations advantage relative to the opponents.
The third advantage proponents had was the power of the L.A. political establishment. Garcetti made passage of Measure EE a top priority, and he spent a lot of political capital supporting it.
Despite all these advantages, LAUSD was also the victim of multiple self-inflicted screw-ups. For instance, the language of Measure EE placed before the voters didn’t match what the LAUSD board actually approved in the official resolution. This not only drew a lawsuit from opponents but raised real issues about what property was actually being taxed.
Unlike the proponents’ campaign, the opposition campaign was nearly flawless, not with-standing the relative disadvantage in dollars. The message came through clearly that LAUSD had failed to enact any reforms to address its structural deficit. Thanks to a coalition of the business community and ordinary taxpayers whose interests were being advanced by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, voters saw the real threat that Measure EE presented, not only to their interests but also to the broader interests of education in Los Angeles, by giving the district a free pass on ignoring meaningful reforms.
There are many takeaways from the Measure EE fight. First and foremost, it is possible to win a tax fight in a progressive jurisdiction as long as the voters are well informed about the underlying issues. Overcoming the tired “it’s for the kids” mantra isn’t easy, but voters no longer reflexively support higher taxes if they perceive that it really isn’t helping the kids.
Another takeaway is that the abysmal failure of EE has reverberated throughout California and caused the education establishment to rethink the entire strategy of “let’s first strike and then ask for a tax hike.” If that model doesn’t work in Los Angeles, it probably won’t work elsewhere.