Editor’s note: This commentary is a response to “A law intended to create more transparency misleads voters. This bill will fix it,” Sept. 5, 2019.
When California voters decide whether to approve a local tax or bond, they deserve to know how much the tax will cost, the duration of the tax and how the additional tax dollars would be spent.
Thanks to a transparency law passed by a bipartisan vote of the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017, taxpayers receive all of that information in the current 75-word ballot question for local tax and bond measures.
However, there is now a legislative attempt to effectively exempt local jurisdictions from this requirement to be honest and transparent with taxpayers.
Under the bill proposed by Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener, local jurisdictions placing a bond or a tax increase before the voters with multiple rates would effectively be exempted from the transparency law.
Instead of reading vital tax information in the ballot question, voters would be prompted to “see voter guide for tax rate information,” which would allow local officials to disguise tax increases and bury important information in lengthy voter guides that are filled with legalese.
Proponents of the bill, SB 268, include local governments, school districts and labor advocates. They argue that the current requirements hamstring local jurisdictions from passing bonds and tax increases, alleging that they can’t effectively tell voters how the tax money will be spent while complying with transparency law.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The California Taxpayers Association, which tracks all local bond and tax measures, found that in 2018, the first year the transparency law was in effect, voters approved 79 percent of the local tax and bond measures on the ballot, 417 of the 526 measures they faced.
Since SB 268 would exempt only taxes with multiple rates and bonds from complying with the law, we investigated the data further to see if those types of measures were rejected more often, as claimed by proponents of the proposal.
We found that the opposite is true. Bonds and multiple-rate taxes had a higher passage rate than the other tax measures.
Of the 526 measures on last year’s local ballots, 167 were general obligation bonds or school bonds, and voters approved 140, an 84% passage rate. Of the 99 local tax measures that included multiple rates, voters approved 79, an 80% passage rate.
Considering that the two types of measures that would be exempted from the transparency law passed in higher percentages than straightforward single-rate measures, SB 268 appears to be nothing more than a solution in search of a problem.
The data shows that voters overwhelmingly support tax and bond measures when local governments are honest and transparent about their intentions, and demonstrate a clear need for the tax increase.
SB 268 would diminish the trust between voters and their local governments by attempting to deceive voters into supporting tax hikes, rather than providing all the facts and letting them make informed decisions.
Dustin Weatherby is California Taxpayers Association’s policy and communications associate, [email protected]. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.