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COLUMN RIGHT / JOEL FOX

The Taxed Must Have Rights, Too : Before we breach Prop. 13's tenets, ensure that voters have a say in what they are assessed.

October 15, 1995|JOEL FOX | Joel Fox is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn

Just as the Bill of Rights was added to the U.S. Constitution to assure the people that they would be protected from the newly created federal government, California's Constitutional Revision Commission had best create pro-taxpayer amendments to balance its pro-tax proposal if it hopes to see its plan adopted.

The 23-member commission--appointees of the governor and the Assembly and Senate leaders--is circulating proposed changes to the state Constitution after months of meetings and hearings. After the changes are read and commented on in four more public hearings, the commission will complete its report and give its recommendations to the Legislature early next year. Any constitutional changes that get a two-thirds vote of the Legislature will appear on the ballot for approval by the voters, probably at the November, 1996, general election.

While the commission has yet to decide all the ways it will allow tax increases, it did approve new funding sources for schools. These proposals breach two of Proposition 13's tax-limitation features--the 1% property-tax rate and the two-thirds vote for special taxes.

The commission proposes that the 1% property-tax rate can be exceeded for school funding with approval of two-thirds of the voters. Under current law, the 1% tax rate can be topped only for general obligation bonds. The commission also would allow a schools-related county sales-tax increase with a majority vote, which up-ends Proposition 13's two-thirds vote requirement for special taxes--collected for a specific purpose.

The commission put caps on these tax increases, but caps won't hold. As sure as there will be another earthquake in California, other government agencies and services are going to look at this plan for property-tax overrides and ask, "What about us?"

If public safety is the first responsibility of local government, police and fire officials will ask why they can't have the same property-tax override or majority-vote sales tax that schools get. Once the limit is pierced, similar demands will be made on behalf of health services or infrastructure maintenance, and soon tax limitations will be meaningless.

Further, the commission voted to allow local governments new taxing authority as a reward for joining something called a "charter community," which is supposed to promote efficient government. What kind of new taxes that will mean has not been spelled out by the commission.

Even though the California Supreme Court recently upheld Proposition 62, which requires a vote on most local taxes, it left unresolved whether the measure applies to cities like Los Angeles that are governed by charter, rather than laws passed by the Legislature. More to the point, the court's ruling becomes irrelevant if the commission changes the Constitution to eliminate vote requirements for taxes.

If the Constitution is going to be revised, the people of California must demand that an enumeration of taxpayers' rights be written into the document. The Constitution now declares: "All political power is inherent in the people." That declaration should be extended to state that the people must have ultimate power over taxation.

There must be a vote on all tax increases, which should appear on general election ballots to avoid the practice of holding special elections at off times when only supporters of a tax increase are mobilized and motivated to vote.

If the people want to reduce or eliminate a tax in the future, they should have that right through an amendment to the Constitution that recognizes the people's power of initiative to change any longstanding tax. Referendum power should also be added for measures that would not be covered by automatic votes, such as certain fees or assessments, or for new types of revenue-raising devices that courts may rule fall outside the automatic vote requirement.

The initiative and referendum powers must be reasonably attainable. That means the number of petition signatures required for a measure to qualify for the ballot should be 5% of the number of people who voted in the last election, similar to the state requirement for initiatives. The current standard for local initiatives is signatures from 10% of registered voters, an unrealistic total that was surreptitiously passed by the Legislature a few years ago.

Without specific taxpayer protections, the voters will see the reforms of the Constitutional Revision Commission as buying more government at more cost. Such a plan will not survive.

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