San Francisco – Late yesterday the California Supreme Court announced it will review a lower court decision which the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association had warned would “kill the right to vote on taxes” if not reversed.
The case, California Cannabis Coalition v. City of Upland, at first glance seems limited to a narrow technical question: on which ballot should an initiative appear when the initiative proposes a new tax? Not the kind of major policy question one would expect the Supreme Court to hear.
But in answering that question, the lower court ruled that taxes proposed by initiative are exempt from the taxpayer protections contained in the state constitution, such as the provision requiring tax proposals to appear at a regularly scheduled general election.
The Jarvis Association, which filed the petition seeking Supreme Court review, was alarmed because the constitution’s taxpayer protections include the right to vote on taxes. If initiatives are exempt from those protections, then public agencies could easily deny taxpayers their right to vote on taxes by proposing taxes in the form of an initiative, then adopting the initiative without an election.
“By granting review, the Supreme Court validated our fears regarding the far-reaching implications of the lower court ruling,” said Tim Bittle, the Association’s senior attorney. “The other side tried to portray this case as limited in scope and not worth the high court’s time. We now feel vindicated.”
The case began when the California Cannabis Coalition circulated an initiative petition to legalize medical marijuana dispensaries in the City of Upland. The initiative requires each dispensary to pay the City an annual $75,000 tax. CCC collected enough signatures to qualify for a special election. But article 13C of the state constitution requires tax proposals to be presented at a general election for city council candidates. (This forces candidates to identify for or against the tax, which helps voters choose the taxpayer-friendly candidates.)
The Court of Appeal ruled that taxes proposed by an initiative are not subject to article 13C. The ruling, however, was not limited to article 13C’s election date requirement. The Court said taxes proposed by initiative are exempt from all of article 13C.
The Jarvis Association was so concerned by the decision, they contacted the Upland City Attorney to verify that the City would be seeking Supreme Court review, and to volunteer their help to write a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the City’s position. When the City Attorney informed them that the City planned to accept defeat and cut its losses, the Association offered to represent the City before the Supreme Court at no charge.