Ease rules on school tax vote, says state senator

11:29 AM, Nov 29, 2012   |    comments
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In a sign that Democrats in the Legislature may not totally be ceding their newfound power over on the issue of taxes, one prominent state senator says he intends to push for a statewide vote on making it easier for local communities to raise parcel taxes to help schools.

The plan by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, will be introduced next week as a constitutional amendment to be placed on the statewide ballot in 2014. Because it takes a supermajority of each house of the Legislature to place a measure on the ballot, such proposals have historically been rare - because it took bipartisan consensus. Now, Democrats safely control two-thirds of the seats in both the Assembly and Senate. And while they've shied away from talk of raising taxes on their own, Leno's proposal may only be the first of tax-related questions posed to California voters.

Leno's proposed amendment would lower the vote needed for a parcel tax to help local schools from its current 66.67 percent approval to 55 percent.

"This change in law would give voters the power to make decisions about public education at the local level, allowing schools much-needed flexibility to improve instruction," said Leno in an emailed statement.

Of course, those voters already have that power; this would simply allow fewer of them to wield it.

A statewide analysis of Nov. 6 local school bond parcel taxes in California communities - assessed per plot of land, rather than a cost calculated by the property's value -- shows 60 percent of them passed. Leno argues that his amendment to the state constitution would simply align school parcel taxes with school bonds (already at a 55 percent threshold) when it comes to votes needed to pass.

And those school bonds, with their easier vote threshold, have a much better track record over the last decade. The same analysis of local measures, by researcher Michael Coleman, finds 81 percent of school bonds have been enacted by voters since 2001 - given the 55 percent vote requirement - while only 60 percent of the more stringent school parcel taxes have passed.

Leno, the chair of the Senate budget committee, clearly now gets a jump on his fellow Democrats who may be eyeing broad fiscal changes via the 2014 ballot when they return to Sacramento next week. Given the popularity of school funding with voters, and the conventional wisdom that voters feel much better about local tax proposals than ones that come from the state, the idea could find support.


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