Prop 39 lowers bar to raise taxes

Debra J. Saunders

10/23/2000 12:00:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders
What does it tell you when California is running a budget surplus of $12.3 billion, yet state politicians and educrats are trying to make it easier to raise property taxes? What does it tell you, when real estate prices are at a zenith and property tax revenues are climbing as a result, yet big business and big government are pushing Proposition 39 to make it easier for local governments to tax even more for each $100,000 of a property's value? It should tell you that there is no such thing as enough money for the entrenched interests on the receiving end of your tax dollars. Even when there's plenty, they're scheming to create laws to help squeeze taxpayers even more. For 121 years, the California Constitution has protected homeowners by requiring a two-thirds vote to approve local government bonds, which are paid off by property taxes. The reason for a two-thirds requirement is simple. A majority vote is necessary to pass taxes that everyone has to pay, because voters are electing to tax themselves. But when voters -- some of whom own property and some of whom don't -- have the opportunity to impose a tax on just the property owners, the state protects those who would have to pay the tax imposed on them by those who wouldn't have to pay. The spending classes, of course, have rebelled against this protection. They placed a measure on the March ballot to change the state constitution so that local governments could raise school bonds with a majority vote. Voters wisely rejected Proposition 26 with only 51 percent of the vote, thanks to low Democratic turnout. Now, after arguing that a simple majority vote should be all that is needed to approve school bonds, the Big Squeezers are back with a new state initiative that would lower the school-bond threshold from two-thirds to 55 percent. A Proposition 39 supporter told me, "Fifty-five percent is still a strong supermajority. In a candidate race, if one candidate received 55 percent, that would be considered a blowout." Proposition 39 is a blowout in a different sense. Boosters like to frame their measure as a bid to increase accountability of how school bond money is spent. Ha! While Prop. 39 requires annual performance audits, the lowered requirement for passage would make school districts less accountable to all voters. "All `Yes on 39' ads fail to mention that there's currently a two-thirds vote," said No on Proposition 39 spokesperson Sheri Annis. "They make it sound like this is solely an accountability measure, which will protect your money. That's utterly false." The Yes side boasts that the Legislature passed a measure that would cap the cost of each new bond to $60 per $100,000 valuation for unified school district bonds, $30 for elementary schools and $25 for community colleges. Beware: Sacramento could destroy those caps after Prop. 39 has become part of the constitution. Besides, there's no cap on the many assessments and bonds already levied on property owners. Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association argues that more than 60 percent of school bonds put before voters since 1996 have passed. The legislative analyst reports that since 1986, voters have approved $18 billion in K-12 bonds, while an additional $13 billion in bonds "received over 55 percent, but less than two- thirds of voter approval." If Proposition 39 passes, not only will more bond measures pass, but school districts will be more likely to ask for more money and less likely to craft packages designed to appeal to two-thirds of the voters. Voters should beware of changing a system that protects one group from bearing more than its share of the tax burden. Ask yourself why Sacramento wants to make it easier to raise taxes -- and why now.