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Lower vote for parcel taxes may not matter, says report

8:00 PM, Sep 16, 2013   |    comments
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SACRAMENTO, CA- A priority for some Democratic legislators -- lowering the threshold to impose local parcel taxes for schools -- may not do much to affect either the number of those ballot measures or their outcome on Election Day.

That's the assessment of a new report by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, an analysis that comes as the parcel tax debate is expected to return and intensify when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

There were actually several proposals to make it easier to pass local taxes for local purposes offered by Democrats during the 2013 legislative session, though none were approved.  Each of them is a constitutional amendment and would thus have to be approved by voters statewide in 2014.

One in particular, by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, would ask voters to make it easier to impose new parcel taxes.

But when it comes to raising taxes for schools, the data doesn't seem to back up the political argument that local communities would raise revenue for their own schools if only the high two-thirds vote hurdle was lowered to 55 percent.

"It is not clear that a 55 percent threshold would expand the reach of parcel taxes to new areas of the state or to more disadvantaged students." write PPIC researchers Eric McGhee and Margaret Weston. "Arguments to the contrary depend heavily on questionable assumptions."

To reach that conclusion, the researchers dig through historical election data to see exactly how voters have reacted to various proposals to raise local revenue for schools and other projects. In particular, they point to how few school needs seem to be even able to muster a 55 percent vote in recent years.

And here's how they know that: California lowered the threshold for school construction bonds to 55 percent in 2000.  While the revenues and uses are different -- the bonds are largely for infrastructure, parcel taxes can be used for any school purpose -- the campaigns probably are pretty similar ("Help Schools").

The results have shown that smaller and wealthier districts have done much better than larger, more disadvantaged districts when it comes to the 55 percent school bonds.

One data point is especially telling: in recent years, PPIC found that even if parcel taxes could have been approved by a 55 percent local vote, only school districts with higher median incomes (almost $77,000) would have succeeded.  The lower-income communities that proposed parcel tax hikes couldn't even get 55 percent support.

It's important to note that parcel taxes have somewhat of a controversial place in the world of raising revenue.  Because they are a flat tax on all parcels of land, regardless of the land's value, they are often seen as a regressive tax -- affecting those with less means more than those who are wealthy.

The bottom line from the study seems to be this: making it easier to impose a new parcel tax for schools in California communities is one thing... actually getting voters in those communities to approve it is another.

John Myers is News10's political editor.  Check out his Twitter feed on California politics, his Facebook page, and the weekly News10 Capitol Connection politics podcast.

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