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Local tax hikes win in California ... sort of

9:58 AM, Nov 6, 2013   |    comments
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2013 won't be remembered for captivating political contests across California -- it was an off-year election cycle, after all -- but in the dozens of local communities that cast ballots, here's one takeaway that has a familiar ring: a tax hike requiring a supermajority vote is more than likely to lose.

The preliminary results of Tuesday's municipal elections across California, compiled by longtime analyst Michael Coleman (PDF), find that only 17 of 27 local measures requiring approval of two-thirds of the ballots cast failed.

In contrast, a whopping 80 percent of local tax hikes were approved that were crafted in such a way that only required a simple majority of ballots cast.

Those results leave a lasting lesson for local government leaders: a winning campaign is often not about whether taxes are needed or excessive, but rather how the tax is defined by the attorneys.

In short, California law says that a local tax for general purposes can be enacted with a majority vote, while a 'special tax' for an earmarked need requires a 66.67 percent/supermajority vote.  The higher threshold for those specific taxes dates back to the landmark 1978 tax limiting initiative, Proposition 13.  Voters further cemented the two-track system of local taxes in a 1996 ballot initiative.

Which gets us to the real world effect for local officials: when possible, draft your tax proposal as something needed for general purposes... even when it may really be needed for something specific.

Case in point: Stockton's Measure A, a 3/4-cent sales tax hike that unofficial results show passing on Tuesday with 52.5 percent of the vote.

The legal analysis from the city defines Measure A as a 'general tax' increase because "because the city can use the tax revenue for any legal municipal purpose."

But in the effort to convince Stockton voters that it was needed, the political shorthand became that it was a tax increase to help fight the city's crime woes.

"The proceeds will fund the city's Marshall Plan to combat violence and reduce crime, adding 120 police officers on the street," wrote Measure A supporters in their ballot pamphlet argument.

Tuesday's results from across California show just how tough the odds are on the flip side for a specific tax.

In rural Lake County, voters in the city of Clearlake were asked to impose a sales tax increase that would largely help fix what are described as crumbling streets and roads.

Measure H won 61 percent of the votes cast on Tuesday.  But because it was specifically earmarked for roads, it needed a supermajority vote... and, therefore, lost.

Local finance analyst Michael Coleman's initial analysis shows similar results for most of local measures in California requiring more than a simple majority.

80 percent of all simple majority tax measures -- again, those deemed to be 'general' taxes -- were approved in local elections around the state on Tuesday.  Coleman says that's better than the average (66 percent success rate) since 2001.

But only 47 percent of supermajority tax hikes were approved -- similar to what Coleman finds is the 47 percent average success rate over the past decade.

It's without question that the campaign in support or opposition to a tax measure matters -- voters are often swayed by what is said or promised in the political arena.  But as the results show from Tuesday, the real odds seem to be set when the legal language of the tax measure is written... language that sets the height of the electoral bar that must be cleared.

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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