LOS ANGELES (AP) — There’s a price to pay for living in California, and for many it’s about to get higher.
There are more than 400 proposals on ballots across the state Tuesday to raise taxes or borrow money as governments struggle to keep up with costs for everything from road paving to skyrocketing pension obligations.
There are statewide propositions to hike cigarette taxes by $2 a pack and extend for 12 years an income tax increase on the wealthy that was sold to voters four years ago by Gov. Jerry Brown as a temporary fix.
Another proposal would allow the state to take on $9 billion in long-term debt to build or modernize schools. Marijuana could be legalized and taxed, too.
That’s just the beginning.
At the local level there are 427 proposals, an apparent record, seeking approval for taxes or bonds, according to an analysis prepared by Michael Coleman, a fiscal adviser to the League of California Cities. School districts and community colleges are asking voters to endorse more than $25 billion in long-term borrowing.
Many communities, including Hemet, Lodi, Sanger and Nevada City, want more money for police or firefighters. There are nearly two dozen proposals to increase hotel occupancy taxes. Los Angeles wants to borrow more than $1 billion for homeless housing and services.
Local governments blame the state for not doing enough to keep up with aging roads and bridges, shifting the burden to their taxpayers. An improved economy in Los Angeles and the Silicon Valley hasn’t reached across the state, leaving some governments squeezed for dollars.
In struggling areas of the Central Valley and rural Northern California, “they haven’t seen that recovery,” said Matt Cate, executive director of the California State Association of Counties.
California collects some of the highest income and sales taxes in the country, but the state just a few decades ago was at the forefront on a national anti-tax movement. Outraged by soaring property taxes, voters in the late 1970s enacted landmark Proposition 13, which slashed property levies and made it more difficult for the Legislature to increase taxes.
Some blame that firewall for starving local communities that depend heavily on property taxes, forcing governments to look elsewhere for tax dollars. Others see government growth and inefficiency at the root of the push for more taxes and borrowing.
Thad Kousser, who teaches political science at the University of California, San Diego, said the state’s growing economy makes it a good time to ask voters to chip in more, while low interest rates make it an ideal time to borrow.
Also, presidential elections typically lure a large turnout of Democrats and other liberal-leaning voters in California, who are seen as friendlier to the notion of additional taxes and new borrowing for schools and services, he said.
The rising cost of pensions is cutting into government budgets across California, and those higher costs are showing up on balance sheets in places as different as the farming community of Colusa, north of Sacramento, and affluent Santa Monica.
In Colusa, interim City Manager Randy Dunn said a proposed sales tax increase would help address a troubling trend: more money going out than the city has coming in. Money from Indian casinos and other sources has been drying up, while pension and other costs of running government have been rising. Next year could bring a $235,000 deficit in a community known for growing tomatoes and rice.
If the trend continues “we will be close to bankruptcy,” he said. If the tax increase fails Tuesday, police and fire services are likely to see cuts because that’s where most of the spending goes.
In Santa Monica, Councilman Kevin McKeown said the state’s decision to dissolve redevelopment agencies erased an important source of funding. Voters in the seaside city are being asked to approve a sales-tax jump, with a related advisory measure asking if the new dollars should go to schools and affordable housing.
In a city where homes often sell for more than $1 million the new funds would “cover the programs and expenses that express our community’s values,” McKeown said.
But on Election Day, “taxes are always difficult,” he added.
Polls show the extension of the income tax on higher-income earners — an individual earning more than $263,000, or $526,000 for joint filers — is likely to pass, as is legal pot. In the last presidential election, 178 tax and bond proposals were approved, out of 240 proposals, according to Coleman’s study.
Along with the statewide proposal to legalize and tax marijuana, several dozen local measures call for taxing pot, including San Diego’s to help fund city services. Some communities want to tax space used to cultivate the plant.
The California Taxpayers Association, which advocates for lower taxes, has estimated proposals on the ballot could result in tax increases of more than $13.6 billion a year. In addition, state and local proposals call for over $31 billion in long-term borrowing.
Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, named for the late businessman behind Proposition 13, said he feared the next battleground could be protections for commercial property in the landmark law.
“How is it that other states are able to provide superior public services, with a much smaller tax load?” Coupal asked. “If you look at any aspect of California government, the redundancies and inefficiencies, it’s clear that higher taxes are not needed at all.”