If a Californian asks a local government to raise money for a new library or ball field, he or she will soon learn only voters can do so. Under initiatives ranging from 1978's Proposition 13 and later Propositions 62 and 218, to 2010's Proposition 26, local taxes require voter approval.
Such a resident might ask, how many votes do I need? It depends. A simple majority can adopt a general tax that government can spend for any purpose. A tax limited to a library or ball field, however, needs two-thirds. Unless, of course, the proposal is a general tax, combined with a measure "advising" the municipality to fund the library or ball field.
In that case, a simple majority can adopt the tax, but the local government's leaders can if they dare ignore the advice. To complicate things more, if a resident wants improved schools, 55 percent voter approval is needed for new buildings, but two-thirds is required to operate those buildings.
Consider how we got here. Proposition 13 famously limited property taxes to 1 percent of assessed value and limited that value to the purchase price, adjusted for the lesser of inflation (or deflation) or 2 percent per year. It also, however, required two-thirds approval of "special taxes," without defining them. Our state Supreme Court decided in 1982 a special tax is one which must be used for specified purposes. Propositions 62 and 218 cemented this rule in our state Constitution.
Some argue it makes little sense to allow voters to provide money to government with no strings attached by simple majority but to require two-thirds to limit new funds to a specific purpose. Perhaps this is merely an accident of history. Perhaps the framers of Propositions 13, 62, 218 and 26 just wanted to make it harder to raise taxes by preventing tax proponents from telling voters what their money would buy.
In any event, a state Court of Appeal decided in 1996 that a general tax combined with an advisory measure can be approved without a two-thirds vote, so even this "making it harder to raise taxes" notion does not explain our current rules.
Democrats now have two-thirds majorities in both houses of the Legislature and new freedom to propose constitutional amendments to voters. Some have already proposed to lower the vote threshold to 55 percent for some special taxes like school or library services. Californians will soon debate what our rules should be. Here are some issues that bear discussion.
Simpler rules are better than complex ones. Government belongs to all of us, not just lawyers and finance experts. The secretary of state recommends ballot materials be written at a fifth-grade reading level for a reason: We want to include everyone in the discussion.
It is healthy to tell voters how tax dollars will be used and for voters to tell elected officials what they value.
Government must make choices. There will never be enough money to fund everything we want. So governments must set priorities, provide what residents are willing to pay for, and leave other services to private actors or the future.
Strings on government spending can make it hard to make good choices, especially when needs change. Set-asides for education, mental health, transportation and many other things complicated recent state budget crises. A tax that can only be spent for a library or ball field may seem like a great idea until a flood, fire or earthquake makes clear that money is more urgently needed elsewhere.
Local control is important to Californians, who approve local more often than state taxes. Local control allows different communities to make different choices. Some people want to live in a high-tax, high-service environment. Others prefer to pay for fewer government services. California is big enough for both.
Finally, supermajority requirements make it hard to change policy when necessary. Our Founding Fathers provided a few supermajority requirements for an 18th-century farming society that was relatively homogenous in cultural terms. This is not today's California.
Election requirements slow government because elections generally happen only every two years and, under current law, only voters can change voter-approved laws. Elections are decided by those who vote, not those who are affected; and voters are fewer than all of us and generally older, whiter and wealthier than all of us.
This is especially true in local elections in which turnouts are often small. Supermajority requirements then allow a minority of a minority to veto an idea. There is, of course, a place for protections against change. Amending the U.S. Constitution is hard for good reasons. Whether California allows too many minority vetoes is a fit subject for debate.
In short, our current local tax rules are complicated and do not make sense to many people. The time has come for a serious discussion of how Californians want to govern ourselves for the common good.