Dan Walters

Opinion: Local measures will test support for tax extensions

It’s virtually certain that California voters will be asked in 2016 to extend – perhaps permanently – the temporary increases in sales and income taxes that they approved in 2012.

Since it’s very unlikely that the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown would extend the taxes, it’s very likely that unions and other advocates will place an extension on the ballot via initiative.

Meanwhile, there will be a test of voter support for taxes next month as local governments and school districts seek approval of many billions of dollars in new taxes, plus bonds that would require property tax hikes to repay.

The sheer volume of the local tax and bond measures on the Nov. 4 ballot is impressive, as a compilation by the California Taxpayers Association shows.

School districts, for example, have placed 113 bond measures on their local ballots, totaling $11.7 billion – a response, it seems, to Brown’s refusal to have a state school bond on the ballot, despite pleas from educators.

Cal-Tax also counted 53 local sales tax proposals – mostly by cities – more than a dozen hotel tax hikes, 11 proposed taxes on marijuana sales, taxes on sugary drinks in Richmond and San Francisco that have sparked fierce opposition campaigns by the soft drink industry, and 40 parcel tax measures.

The latter are property taxes that, at least in theory, don’t violate Proposition 13, the iconic 1978 property tax limit measure. Proposition 13 limits property taxes based on values, while parcel taxes are fixed amounts applied to parcels of property regardless of value.

However, some proposals would levy differing amounts of tax on different kinds of property, which may run afoul of a 2013 state appellate court decision saying properties must be treated equally. A bill to overturn the decision and allow differential taxes failed in the Legislature this year.

If approved, the pending parcel taxes would be added to the more than 300 that school districts and local governments have imposed, with voter approval, over the last three decades, according to a legislative staff analysis.

Their proliferation has raised another issue – whether they may run afoul of another landmark court ruling, the state Supreme Court’s 1971 Serrano v. Priest declaration that financing schools with value-based property taxes violates equal-protection provisions because per-pupil taxable property values vary widely.

Although the state now supplies most school money and tries to equalize per-pupil financing, parcel taxes, most common in affluent communities, re-create the kind of spending differentials that the Serrano decision banned.

David Doerr, a former legislative tax expert who now works for Cal-Tax, writes in a recent analysis, “the rise in use of parcel taxes (means) some districts are able to raise more per student than others,” and therefore, “the parcel tax clearly has a Serrano problem.”

Call The Bee’s Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, sacbee.com/news/politics-government/dan-walters/. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.