In a move that’s being praised by special interest groups and decried by taxpayer advocates, the California Supreme Court decided Monday to lower the threshold for voter-approved tax initiatives from two-thirds to simple majority approval.
That means tax increases, which have historically seen little success in Kern County – a conservative bastion wary of over-taxation – could become a lot easier to pass if they’re proposed by citizens groups, rather than local government agencies.
Until Monday, tax increases always required two-thirds voter approval, and if a government agency proposes them, they still will. But the California Supreme Court made a distinction this week between taxes imposed by government and taxes recommended by citizen groups.
“Taxation imposed by initiative is not taxation imposed by local government,” the decision states.
So the same threshold for voter approval doesn’t apply if citizens bring forth the initiative through a signature-gathering process, according to the decision.
“This is an absolutely terrible decision and [shows] absolute disregard for people who own property,” Kern County Taxpayers Association Executive Director Michael Turnipseed said Monday, taking particular aim at how it would impact parcel taxes, which he said are the most “punitive, unfair” kind of tax.
“Government just keeps screwing things up, and judges, too. I can’t believe what the next thing is going to be,” Turnipseed said. “Nothing is sacred anymore.”
The decision comes out of California Cannabis Coalition v. The City of Upland, a case that involved whether the city could tax cannabis outfits $75,000 annually for increased public safety services.
In question was whether a proposed general tax could be presented to voters during a special election, however it turned into something wider-reaching, said Timothy Bittle, director of legal affairs for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which filed dissenting opinions to the case.
“The implications and unintended consequences of this decision are much bigger than what was originally at stake,” Bittle said.
The resulting decision equates to one of the biggest changes seen in how tax hikes are passed in California, and will likely lead to a slew of citizen-group initiated proposals next election cycle.
Some say, however, that the new interpretation returns power to the majority, rather than a minority.
“When you set the requirement at two-thirds, you are putting not only your thumb, but your foot on the scale against potential majorities that fail to reach two-thirds,” said Allen Bolar, a Bakersfield College political science faculty member. “You’re empowering a minority position.”
Since the June 7, 2016, presidential primary, there have been three tax measures that have required two-thirds approval — including a hard-fought one-eighth cent sales tax increase to fund libraries. Each of them, however, attracted simple majorities.
Under the new interpretation, those tax hikes would have passed.
Miranda Lomeli-O’Reilly, co-founder of Advocates for Library Enhancement, the group that backed Measure F, called the new interpretation a victory for passing “self-help” tax increases for needed services, but wasn’t ready to launch another campaign to get the measure on the next ballot.
“It creates optimism, but running a campaign is no joke,” Lomeli-O’Reilly said.
Meanwhile, executives and campaign consultants who failed to gather enough votes to impose a parcel tax in June for critical seismic retrogrades at Kern Valley Hospital were celebrating. It gained 52 percent voter approval — nowhere near enough to pass under the state law, but just enough to gain approval under the new interpretation.
For them, such a tax hike is dire. Without the upgrades, the hospital would be out of compliance by 2030, and the state could shut its doors.
They have been trying for years to pass the $32 million tax increase in the Kern River Valley.
They were planning to ask voters to take up the measure again in June 2018, but are more optimistic now.
“Not having to hit that incredibly high 66.7 percent hurdle would be very valuable to us,” Kern Valley Healthcare District CEO Tim McGlew said, pointing out that his hospital is not the only one in such a situation. “I’m dealing with four other CEOs who lost ballot measures earlier this year.”
Turnipseed, however, was critical of the Kern Valley Healthcare District’s failed parcel tax proposed this year.
“They couldn’t pass it on its merit,” Turnipseed said. “If you can’t pass a hospital tax up there with only people living there registering to vote and get the two-thirds, I think you’ve got a problem.”