by Ed Mendel
(Published Dec. 20, 1999)
SACRAMENTO -- Driven by deteriorating schools and roads, three ballot measures may ask California voters to decide whether the tight clamp on taxes imposed by Proposition 13 more than two decades ago should be eased at last.
If all of the measures appear on the ballot next year and are approved by voters, the new millennium may begin with the end of the Proposition 13 era, the landmark property-tax cut in 1978 that sparked a nationwide move to lower taxes and shrink the size of government.
In a time of prosperity and plentiful jobs, there is concern about two of the basic public services in California: Many schools are crowded, rundown, underequipped, poorly staffed and producing students whose average test scores rank among the lowest in the nation.
Aging roads and highways not only annoy motorists with slowdowns and gridlock, but hamper the vital commercial flow of goods, services and workers.
Sensing a historic opportunity, backers of the ballot measures want to see if the pendulum of public opinion is swinging away from Proposition 13. Are voters ready to make it easier to raise taxes and pump money into schools and roads?
None of the proposals would overturn the main thrust of Proposition 13, which cut the property tax and capped its growth. Instead, all three proposals are aimed at a Proposition 13 provision, less well-known but important, that requires a two-thirds rather than a majority vote to raise taxes.
Already on the March ballot next year is Proposition 26, a proposal to lower the threshold for approving local school-construction bonds from a two-thirds to a majority vote. A similar proposal was rejected by 70 percent of the voters in 1993 during an economic recession, and the fate of the new proposal will be watched to see if a new day is at hand. School bonds have required a two-thirds vote since the last century. But local school bonds, which are paid off with property taxes, were blocked by Proposition 13 until reinstated by a ballot measure approved by voters in 1986.
That same year, the main author of Proposition 13, the late Howard Jarvis, obtained voter approval of an initiative reinforcing a provision in Proposition 13 requiring a two-thirds public vote on local tax increases for special purposes.
A court decision based on Jarvis' 1986 initiative, Proposition 62, requires a two-thirds vote for local sales taxes used for transportation. Now there is concern that local transportation taxes, which were approved by majority votes before the court decision, will not receive a two-thirds renewal vote when they expire.
For example, in San Diego County a half-cent of the 73/4-cent tax on each $1 of a purchase goes to transportation. The transportation tax, yielding $157 million last fiscal year, was approved by 53 percent of San Diego County voters in 1987 and expires in 2008.
Business groups are backing a proposed ballot measure, SCA 3, that would lower the threshold for approving local transportation sales taxes to a majority vote. Assembly Republicans want pay-as-you-go financing for infrastructure, rather than state bonds, in exchange for their support. A more direct challenge to Proposition 13 comes from an initiative proposed by the California Teachers Association to bring school funding up to the national average. California has been spending about $1,000 less per pupil than the national average, a gap of more than $5 billion.
To make it easier to pass a tax increase required by the measure, the CTA initiative also would overturn the Proposition 13 provision that requires the Legislature to approve tax increases by a two-thirds rather than a majority vote.
"There is a big difference between proposing these measures and getting them approved by voters," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. "When was the last time a two-thirds vote reduction was approved by California voters?"
ED MENDEL is Sacramento bureau chief for the Union-Tribune.
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Speaker's Commission on State/Local Government Finance