If local elected officials only say generally how the money from a tax measure will be spent, it requires only a simple majority to pass.
But if officials make promises that are too specific – if they try to be more transparent about where the money will go – it takes a two-thirds supermajority to pass.
That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it’s one of the arcane rules of California’s tax system. And it could complicate the rising calls for economic justice in Sacramento after the Stephon Clark killing.
City leaders are talking about a sales tax increase – an additional half-cent would generate $45 million a year or so – to fund more investments in poor neighborhoods and economic development.
But to make sure a measure on the November ballot is a “general tax” that needs only 50 percent plus one to pass, it’s likely that the City Council will only pledge to prioritize struggling neighborhoods – not earmark money for specific projects in communities such as Meadowview, where Clark was shot.
Politically, that’s probably the right play. But imagine the anger and protests if there’s a tax increase, but poor neighborhoods don’t get their fair share.
Officials walked this fine line with Measure U, a half-cent sales tax hike that voters approved in 2012 and without which the city budget would implode. While the official ballot question made clear that it was a general tax and that revenues could be used for any municipal purpose, it also said that the money would go to “essential public safety services.” Supporters told voters that the money would restore cuts to police, fire, parks maintenance and other basic services slashed during the Great Recession.
The new sales tax plan is to be unveiled in early May. Mayor Darrell Steinberg wasn’t ready this week to discuss details, but he said the Clark shooting has given him a new focus on economic equity. On Thursday, he announced $500,000 in new grants for nonprofits that work with youths, but that won’t go very far. On Monday, he declared that technology start-ups that put jobs and services in poor neighborhoods will get special consideration for $1 million in grants.
District 7 City Councilman Rick Jennings says he strongly backs expanding Measure U to a full penny to “change the face” of poor areas such as Meadowview, Valley Hi and north Sacramento; to expand youth programs and keep libraries and pools open later; and to add enough officers for real community policing.
It’s not clear whether there would be one ballot measure or two – one to renew Measure U, which the police and fire unions would support, and a second focused on neighborhood investment, which could be a tougher sell. It’s also possible that a sales tax hike would be permanent, unlike Measure U, which started in 2013 and automatically expires in 2019.
Measure U passed with 64 percent of the vote, which means it would have failed if it had been a special tax specifically for police and fire. That two-thirds bar bit local leaders as recently as 2016, when Measure B, a half-cent sales tax for transit and roads, narrowly failed with 65 percent.
The higher requirement for a “special” tax goes back to Proposition 13 in 1978, and was written into the state constitution by Proposition 218 in 1996. So it would take a statewide ballot measure to lower the vote threshold. While the League of California Cities and California Association of Counties both support the idea, neither group is actively pushing it.
The impact could be huge. From 2001 through November 2017, half of more than 1,000 special local tax measures passed in California. But if the threshold had been 55 percent (the requirement for some school bond issues was lowered from two-thirds to 55 percent in a 2000 proposition), another 30 percent of the special taxes would have also passed, according to tallies by local finance expert Michael Coleman.
While a lower percentage would help, public faith is essential to pass any tax hike. And there isn’t exactly a surplus of trust in City Hall in these challenging days after the Clark shooting.
A sales tax for neighborhood investment could be a turning point. It’s too bad that city leaders – trying to make sure it passes – can’t be totally up-front on exactly how the money will be spent.