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Hundreds of local tax measures fill ballot

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POSTED October 21, 2012 7:20 p.m.

SACRAMENTO (AP) — Gov. Jerry Brown has competition on the November ballot, and it's not just from a rival statewide tax initiative seeking to raise income taxes for school funding.

He is asking California voters to increase the state sales tax and income taxes on the wealthy to close the state budget deficit at the same time that hundreds of cities, counties, school districts and local special districts are making their own tax requests of voters.

In addition to Brown's initiative, Proposition 30, more than 230 measures for local taxes, bonds and fees will appear on the local ballots, said Michael Coleman, fiscal policy adviser to the League of California Cities. More than 100 of those initiatives are being put forward by school districts and community colleges for construction bonds and to buy equipment and make repairs.

The rest were placed on the ballot by municipalities, special districts and school districts to increase or renew parcel, utility and use taxes. The number of local revenue measures is comparable to the volume seen during the 2008 and 2004 presidential election years.

With Brown's initiative leading the ballot this year, voters in many parts of the state will have to consider whether they can afford to support several local tax increases, the statewide tax increases, all of them or just say no.

Chelsea Shannon, a first-time voter, said she was overwhelmed by the Sacramento ballot, which includes a local sales tax proposal and school bond requests in addition to the statewide tax questions.

The 19-year-old said she is inclined to support both the governor's tax initiative and Sacramento's Measure U, a sales tax increase to rebuild police, fire and park services that were cut severely during the recession.

She said the local tax increase will make the city safer. If both Proposition 30 and Measure U pass, shoppers in California's capital city will pay 8.5 percent in sales tax for the next several years.

"Although it is high, compared to Oregon especially, which has no sales tax, I think we'll be fine with it," said Shannon, who attends the University of Portland and was registering to vote during a brief visit home last week. "From my perspective, Measure U is great because our city is not safe, and helping with prevention programs and giving money to beef up the police force, I think that's very beneficial to the city of Sacramento."

Like the City Council members in Sacramento who backed Measure U, local government and school officials elsewhere say their requests are a reflection of the impact the recession and its declining tax revenue have had on government services. Yet the number of local tax measures facing voters could very well make Brown's sales job harder.

The last time a statewide tax increase was approved by California voters was a millionaire's tax for mental health programs in 2004.

"I think it's going to play very negatively," said David Wolfe, legislative director with the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, an anti-tax group. "We have already the highest state sales tax in the nation by far. We still have a 10.8 percent unemployment rate, 2 million Californians are still out of work, and it's hard to justify increases in regressive taxes of this nature when municipalities and the state haven't addressed the pension issue or a rainy day fund or spending discipline."

The board of the Coast Community College District in Orange County decided it was time to put a $698 million bond question on the ballot because the district has a long list of much-needed repairs and upgrades to the three-college system, said Jim Moreno, the board's president. Many of the college system's 60,000 students are seeking to re-enter the workforce after serving in the military.

"It's because money is not coming to us and we have to ask the people who have invested in us before to do it again," Moreno said of Measure M. "It's not that we're in competition (with the governor) or we're riding coattails. Everybody is hurting."

Moreno said he believes voters will understand the need to invest in education at a time when the college staff has accepted a 2.5 percent pay cut and fees have jumped from $26 a unit to $46.

The San Diego Unified School District is asking for one of the largest bond measures. Measure Z is a $2.8 billion bond to repair 60-year-old classrooms and improve libraries, wiring, plumbing, bathrooms and leaky roofs, not to mention removing hazardous materials and upgrading technology.

In Tulare County, in the southern San Joaquin Valley, 12 local measures have qualified for the November ballot. Among them are five school bonds, a school parcel tax and a tax on hotel stays in the city of Exeter.

There are 35 proposals to extend or increase local sales taxes in November, and 10 of those seek to increase or extend local sales taxes by a full 1 cent — in Moraga, Maricopa, La Mirada, Carmel, Hollister, Yucca Valley, Lathrop, Fairfield, Clearlake and Alameda County.

The debate over Sacramento's Measure U is an example of the debate seen in communities throughout California over raising taxes during a recession. It would impose a half-cent sales tax for six years to raise about $28 million year for general city services.

Supporters say the money is needed to restore recent cuts to police, fire and parks. Opponents say the city has not done all it can to negotiate better labor deals that would save taxpayers money in the long run.

Business leaders say they are opposed to Measure U because it puts the capital at a competitive disadvantage. If the proposal passes, Sacramento's sales tax would rise from 7.75 percent to 8.25 percent, 1 percent higher than in neighboring Placer County.

"The more tax measures that are on the same ballot, the higher likelihood that all of them get a no vote," said Roger Niello, a former state lawmaker who is president of the Sacramento Metro Chamber, which opposed the measure.

"It's got to create a certain amount of exasperation — 'Oh my goodness, there's more,'" Niello added. "And there's also potential confusion."

Brown's initiative would boost the statewide sales tax by a quarter cent for four years.

Sonja Patel a researcher at the Public Policy Institute of California, said surveys have shown majority support for local parcel tax measures to fund public schools. EdSource, a nonpartisan group that compiles public school data, said parcel taxes had a passage rate of 61 percent even during the downtown, from 2008 through 2010.

Coleman, the consultant for the League of California Cities, said voters might look at local measures differently because they have a better sense of their local funding needs.

"My perception is that people differentiate between state and local, and that local measures fly independently of what's going on in the state for the most part," he said. "If people are going to vote against taxes, they're going to vote against them anyway."

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