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Golis: Tax plans here, there, everywhere


“My fear is we may have voter burnout when it comes to tax issues.”

— Supervisor Efren Carrillo

The rush is on. With the economy growing again, local governments are eager be first in line for new revenue. In the calculus of electoral politics, these hometown agencies want to get their share before the voters decide, one more time, that enough is enough.

As the deadline approaches this week, as many as eight tax and bond measures may appear on Sonoma County ballots in November. The list includes countywide sales tax measures for roads and libraries, a city sales tax in Petaluma, bond issues for Santa Rosa Junior College and the Santa Rosa City Schools and utility tax measures in Santa Rosa, Sebastopol and Cloverdale.

All these tax measures on one ballot will test the conventional wisdom, which says: Some voters will simply turn away, reasoning that all these tax increases only prove that government can’t be trusted. When tax elections are won by small margins, every vote counts.

Still, none of the agencies involved is volunteering to defer to the others. The Petaluma City Council is on record opposing what it views as a pre-emptive strike by the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors.

With little opportunity for the cities to comment, supervisors on Tuesday rolled out a sales tax plan to support road repairs.

For the county board, it’s not the easiest of arguments: Since the county spent the past 30 years neglecting roads, could you now help us out?

Still, no one can argue the road budget doesn’t need the money.

Now supervisors wait to find out whether one interest group or another will oppose the plan. It appears that environmental groups have been pacified by an offer to dedicate 10 percent of the revenue to transit, but an advocate for roads called that “a horrible mistake.”

Not mincing words, he complained, “The last two weeks is the first time the vultures came in and wanted to pick some money off.”

If all this seems contentious and confusing — and it is — we can blame the patchwork of constraints piled on to local government since the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978.

Once upon a time, elected officials were simply obliged to manage taxes and spending and have their priorities judged at the next election.

Then came a grab bag of revenue and spending limits that left cities, counties, school and special districts to a never-ending cycle of elections and short-term solutions that promised to make everything right (until the next budget shortfall came along).

In this case, supervisors are obliged to employ an elaborate dance — proposing a general tax, while promising, promising, promising that the money will only be spent on roads (plus the 10 percent for transit).

A general tax requires the support of 50 percent of the voters, plus one. A tax dedicated to a specific purpose requires a two-thirds majority.

At one point, Supervisor Susan Gorin asked why the proposal didn’t consider a local gasoline tax that would ask the people who use the roads to pay for them, but hers was a rhetorical question. As a matter of electoral politics, everyone in the room knew that a gas tax proposal wouldn’t be palatable to voters.

For local governments seeking a substantial bump in operating funds, the sales tax has become the only game in town.

Not long ago, people dedicated to smart public policy would have been outraged by the news that the sales tax was approaching 10 cents on the dollar. (If you travel to Oregon this summer, you may discover something missing on your restaurant or store bill. Oregon is one of five states that doesn’t levy a sales tax.)

If you think elected officials in your town are too quick to support a new shopping center — disregarding environmental impacts, or the opportunity for other kinds of economic development — it might be because they are desperate for new sales tax revenues to pay for cops or parks.

Sales taxes are also regressive. Whether you’re a billionaire or a low-income family buying a child’s first pair of shoes, you pay the same tax.

In a perfect world, political leaders would figure out a more fair and rational allocation of tax revenues, but public mistrust of government has become a central theme of California politics. And so we are left with two truisms about taxation: (1) voters know the system is broken, and (2) they don’t trust the politicians to fix it.

It’s a helluva way to run the eighth largest economy on earth.

Locally elected officials long ago figured out they’re not going to change it, and so the rush for new revenues is on.

If the Petaluma City Council and the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors bring to the table different priorities, we shouldn’t be surprised. They have different responsibilities and different constituencies.

These disagreements may be disruptive, but these elected officials are only doing their jobs. All things considered, that’s not such a bad thing.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.