Revise tax laws
Published: Monday, December 10, 2012 at 1:00 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, December 5, 2012 at 1:36 p.m.
Last month, 62 percent of Petaluma voters said yes to Measure X, a $52 a-year residential parcel tax that would have raised $12 million to fix everything from cracked tennis courts to dilapidated playgrounds and playing fields. Despite overwhelming voter support, the measure failed, leaving the city's recreational facilities to further deteriorate.
A similarly large majority of voters in the Rancho Adobe Fire District, 62.8 percent to be exact, voted to approve a $60 annual parcel tax measure last month designed to protect the lives and property of people living in the rural area north of Petaluma. Despite this very strong show of voter support, that measure also failed to win passage, and the district's three fire stations are now being shuttered on a rotating basis, thus jeopardizing the safety of 25,000 rural residents.
How is it that large majorities of local voters still cannot win passage for modest tax increases to preserve basic public safety services or improve broken down recreational facilities? The answer: Prop. 13, a sweeping anti-tax measure passed by California voters in 1978 that requires a whopping 66.6 percent voter approval for any parcel tax or special purpose tax measure for cities, schools or fire districts.
Prop. 13 was passed 34 years ago, and the circumstances that led to its approval have changed radically since then. Does it still make sense to allow a 33.3 percent minority to dictate tax policy on the local level?
We don't think so, and we're heartened to hear that Petaluma's outgoing and incoming state senators, Mark Leno and Lois Wolk, introduced legislation this week that would relax the outdated two-thirds majority approval requirement for local tax measures and replace it with a more reasonable 55 percent threshhold. Their proposed constitutional amendment, which would require state voter approval, is expected to be debated in the legislature very soon.
In the past, legislative Republicans have been able to block such changes to the politically inviolate Prop. 13, but the new Democratic “super-majority” in the Senate and the Assembly that took office on Monday could well overcome such resistance. And that would be a good thing for cities like Petaluma as well as fire districts like Rancho Adobe.
State voters, who last month approved Prop. 30 to raise sales taxes to ensure adequate funding for schools, have begun to realize that the state's crumbling infrastructure and ailing public education system will not be magically fixed without some new revenues.
Here in Petaluma, the streets are a mess. So are the parks. Many street lights don't work and aging ambulances are breaking down, threatening timely response to medical emergencies.
Property and sales tax revenues remain at very low levels due to the sluggish economy, so the money to fix these problems is hard to come by. With skyrocketing employee pension costs comprising an ever greater slice of the city's budget pie, most new tax dollars that do come to the city get sucked down the black hole of underfunded pension obligations unless they are specifically earmarked for improvements to things like parks or streets.
While pension reform should certainly be a top priority for all elected officials, the city is not well positioned to solve the problem by itself. A long term solution to the overly generous pension obligations to public employees requires tough negotiating on the local level and widespread reform on the state level. Some modest small steps on the latter are slated to go into effect Jan. 1, but much more is needed.
In the meantime, cities like Petaluma and fire districts like Rancho Adobe must find new revenues to restore adequate services, and parcel taxes or special use taxes are a logical step forward. A temporary $60 a year parcel tax made good sense to a large majority of voters in the Rancho Adobe Fire District. A $52 dollar a-year parcel tax in Petaluma to fix recreational facilities was acceptable to a large majority of Petaluma voters. The will of such large majorities should be respected.
Anti-tax crusaders may disagree, but we believe it's time that the decision-making power to raise taxes be returned to local voters who should be able to decide for themselves, by a 55 percent majority, how tax monies are raised and spent.
If you agree, we encourage you to contact your newly elected Assemblyman Marc Levine and State Senator Lois Wolk to voice your support for such needed reforms.
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