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Californians want to allow local taxes on cigarettes, other products

Nearly 60% of those polled support changing state law to allow voters to approve local taxes on cigarettes, sugary drinks, liquor and oil pumped from the ground.

July 25, 2011|By Shane Goldmacher, Los Angeles Times
  • Legislators in Sacramento are debating bills that would allow local taxes on cigarettes, sodas, liquor and extracted oil.
Legislators in Sacramento are debating bills that would allow local taxes… (Los Angeles Times )

Reporting from Sacramento — Californians would let local officials put new taxes on cigarettes, sugary drinks, liquor and oil pumped from the ground if voters in their communities said it was OK, a new poll shows.

Local governments cannot tax such products in California now. But a proposal being vigorously debated in the Capitol would allow cities, counties and more than 1,000 school boards to add their own levies and give local voters final say. Nearly 60% of those polled supported such a change.

The sentiment spanned all age groups and every region of the state, according to the bipartisan survey by The Times and the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

"Leave it up to the locals," said Paul Greenberg, a 54-year old Democrat in San Diego who said he was semi-retired. "Let the people vote on it. I don't see anything wrong on that."

Cities and counties do have some tax authority. Both can bump up sales taxes with voter approval, for example. Cities can enact hotel or utility taxes. And school districts can ask for voters' blessing to introduce or raise parcel property taxes.

But some lawmakers, citing the retrenchment made necessary by years of budget cutbacks in Sacramento, say it's time to grant local authorities more power to raise revenue.

"We have a responsibility to give counties and school districts the tools they need to fund public services," said state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).

He and others argue that municipalities need more money to preserve schools, healthcare and police. Business groups have lined up against the idea, saying higher taxes would hurt the economy and stifle prospects for job growth.

After voters in the survey were presented with both sides' arguments, support for new local tax powers dipped only slightly, from 58% to 55%. Nearly two-thirds of Democrats, 64%, approved; 42% of Republicans did.

Joanne Holt agreed with Steinberg. The retired teaching assistant from North Highlands, outside of Sacramento, said she doesn't want to see public safety or schools hurt further by the state's persistent financial troubles. If more tax authority for city councils and school boards is the answer, so be it, said the 69-year-old Democrat.

"It's more important that the children get an education," she said. "They're our future."

Another in favor was Republican Jamie Blossom, 47, a state disability insurance representative in Diamond Bar. She liked the idea that local tax money would stay in her community, where "I have a much bigger voice," she said.

Hidy Chui, a 20-year-old Democrat who attends UC Riverside, said he approved of a local cigarette tax. "I don't even smoke, so if it's an increase in that, it doesn't harm me," he said.

That is a typical attitude, said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and a former GOP strategist. "People support tax increases on others."

Poll co-director Linda DiVall of American Viewpoint, the Republican half of the survey team, cautioned that a new rash of taxes is unlikely even if local governments gain the flexibility to request them.

"It's much easier to support higher taxes in theory than when it comes up for a vote," she said.

A local oil-extraction levy is also part of the debate in Sacramento. Some legislators want to allow municipalities, such as oil-rich Kern County, to tax every barrel pumped from the ground.

That didn't appeal to Mary Lou Curry, a 65-year old retiree. "Oil? Jeez, that would just be passed on to all of us," said the Yucca Valley Democrat, "as if we don't already pay enough at the gas pump."

Steinberg has introduced legislation that would go even further and allow local officials to also tax medical marijuana and residents' incomes and cars. His measure sparked a fierce outcry from taxpayer and business groups, which threatened to fight it at the ballot.

Steinberg said in an interview last week that he is tabling the measure until next year.

The Times/USC Dornsife poll surveyed 1,507 registered voters in California from July 6 to 17. It was conducted by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a Democratic firm, and American Viewpoint, the Republican company. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus 2.52 percentage points.

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