In summary

California voters faced a slew of local tax and bond measures in this week’s election and more will be coming in November, but in proposing them, local officials avoid mentioning escalating pension costs as the major reason they need more revenue.

While public and media attention to this week’s primary election focused – understandably so – on contests for governor, U.S. senator and a handful of congressional seats, there were other important issues on Californians’ ballots.

One, which received scant attention at best, was another flurry of local government and school tax and bond proposals.

The California Taxpayers Association counted 98 proposals to raise local taxes directly, or indirectly through issuance of bonds that would require higher property taxes to repay.

The proposed taxes on legal marijuana sales and other retail sales and “parcel taxes” on pieces of real estate were particularly noteworthy for how they were presented to voters.

Most followed the playbook that highly paid strategists peddle to local officials, advising them to promise improvements in popular services, such as police and fire protection and parks, and avoid any mention of the most important factor in deteriorating fiscal circumstances – the soaring cost of public employee pensions.

City, county and school district officials howl constantly, albeit mostly in private, that ever-increasing, mandatory payments to the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) and the California State Teachers Retirement System (CalSTRS) are driving some entities to the brink of insolvency.

However, those officials are just as consistently unwilling to tell their voters that pension costs are the basic underlying factor in their requests for tax increases.

Why?

Tying tax increases to pensions, rather than popular services, not only would make voters less likely to vote for them but make public employee unions less willing to pony up campaign funds to sell the tax increases to voters. It is, in effect, a conspiracy of silence.

This week’s local tax and bond measures are just a tuneup for what will likely be a much larger batch on the November ballot.

It’s a well-established axiom of California politics that low-turnout elections, such as a non-presidential primary in June, are not as friendly to tax proposals as higher-turnout general elections, such as the one in November. Primaries tend to draw more older white voters who often shun taxes, while general elections have younger and more ethnically diverse electorates more attuned to taxes.

As local officials make plans to place those proposals on the November ballot, a bill making its way through the Legislature could skew local tax politics even more.

Senate Bill 958 would allow one school district, Davis Unified, to exempt its own employees from paying the $620 per year parcel tax that its voters approved two years ago.

The Senate approved SB 958 on a 24-19 vote last month, sending it to the Assembly. It’s being carried by Sen. Bill Dodd, a Napa Democrat whose district includes Davis.

The bill’s rationale is that housing is so expensive in Davis that teachers and other school employees cannot afford to live there, and that exempting them from the parcel tax would, at least in theory, make housing more affordable.

However, if SB 958 becomes law, it would set a dangerous precedent. It doesn’t take much imagination to see local government and school unions throughout the state demanding similar exemptions from new taxes with the threat, explicit or implicit, that they would refuse to finance tax measure campaigns.

The very people who benefit most from additional taxes by receiving higher salaries and/or better fringe benefits thus would be able to avoid paying those taxes themselves.

Where would it end?

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact Gary Reed with any commentary questions: gary@calmatters.org, (916) 234-3081.

Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times...