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No on Prop. 47

May 19, 1986

Proposition 47 on the June primary ballot would change the way the state Legislature allocates vehicle license fees to county and city governments in California. The measure is well-intentioned, but it would clutter the state Constitution with an unneeded amendment affecting matters more properly left to the judgment of elected officials. It should be defeated.

Under the current system, the state Department of Motor Vehicles collects license fees for every automobile registered in California. After paying its collection costs out of the proceeds, Sacramento sends the money to local governments to use as they see fit. In fiscal 1985-86, for example, more than $1.22 billion was distributed in this way, with 60% going to counties and 40% to cities.

Because this arrangement is based on statutory law rather than constitutional formula, however, the Legislature is free to change the allocation formula whenever it chooses. This has happened several times in recent years. As both Democratic and Republican governors have struggled to balance the state budget, the Legislature has helped by using the vehicle-fee fund to pay for state programs. In some years, that has dramatically reduced the amount of money returned to local governments. Los Angeles County received more than $230 million in registration fees in 1984-85, for example. This compares to only $98 million in 1983-84 and $85 million in 1982-83, years when the Legislature dipped into the vehicle registration fund.

Local officials argue that a lack of consistency in the way Sacramento handles the vehicle-fee fund makes it hard for them to plan their budgets. We agree that it's a bad budgetary practice for state officials to take vehicle-license fees whenever it suits their purpose. But it is worse budgetary practice to lock spending procedures of any sort into the Constitution. For better or worse, elected officials must have flexibility in their budgeting process, so it is better to regulate it through statutory authority rather than through the initiative process. While we sympathize with the intention of Proposition 47, it is the wrong way to deal with the problem.

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