Renewed push for a 55 percent threshold to pass parcel tax

It didn’t take long for a Democratic senator among the newly empowered supermajority in the Legislature to go after a low-hanging fruit: lowering the threshold for passage of a local parcel tax for education.

On Thursday, Sen. Mark Leno of San Francisco announced he would introduce a constitutional amendment that would allow voters to pass parcel taxes for school districts and community colleges by 55 percent instead of the current two-thirds majority.

“This change in law would give voters the power to make decisions about public education at the local level, allowing schools much-needed flexibility to improve instruction, fund libraries, music, the arts or other programs, or hire more teachers to reduce student-to-teacher ratios,” Leno said in a statement.

Requiring a two-thirds majority to raise taxes was part of Proposition 13, passed in 1978. However, voters have already lowered the threshold for school construction bonds to 55 percent; they did that in 2000 with Proposition 39. Leno is picking up the banner from termed-out Sen. Joe Simitian, a Palo Alto Democrat who introduced legislation for the 55 percent threshold for parcel taxes during his time in the Legislature. But, despite solid Democratic support, Simitian could never find any Republicans to back it, so his amendment languished.

With last month’s election, Democrats now have the two-thirds majority – 54 votes in the 80-member Assembly and 27 votes in the Senate – to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot or pass a tax on their own. Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Perez have tempered talk of raising taxes this year, but a constitutional amendment to give voters the right to pass them could be presented as giving voters more local control, a priority of Gov. Jerry Brown.

Parcel taxes are regressive; property owners of castles and cottages pay the same amount. But they have proven popular in those districts that have put them on the ballot, because all of the money raised stays in the district, for uses specified under the terms of the parcel tax. They have ranged from under $50 to more than $400 per parcel in wealthier Bay Area districts.

On Nov. 6, voters passed 14 of 22 parcel taxes. Had the 55 percent threshold been in effect, 19 would have passed. Parcel taxes for community colleges have been harder to pass, and few districts have tried. This month, two out of three failed to get 67 percent; the exception was a $79 tax for the San Francisco Community College District.

Over the past two decades, 55 percent of parcel taxes – 322 of 584 – have passed, according to Mike McMahon, a school board member from Alameda Unified, who has tracked the results.

Filed under: School Finance, State Education Policy

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8 Responses to “Renewed push for a 55 percent threshold to pass parcel tax”

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  1. KAG on Oct 22, 2013 at 11:20 am10/22/2013 11:20 am

    • 000

    Folks we are 47th or 49th in the nation in per pupil spending. Don’t get too excited.

  2. RK on Dec 14, 2012 at 7:59 pm12/14/2012 7:59 pm

    • 000

    Update to the above is that because of Borikas v Alameda Unified School District, the Piedmont Unified School District changed their former 9 teired system to a flat rate $2,406 per parcel tax. This was done at literally the last possible moment with 24 hours notice to the community before the Board voted. With the regressive flat tax, the disparity grows up to 40x smallest to largest. The regressive nature of the tax would be less of an issue or mute were the tax not so high.

  3. RK on Dec 7, 2012 at 6:34 am12/7/2012 6:34 am

    • 000

    As of Nov 2012 the San Marino taxes totaled $1169 per parcel. As high as that is, the one correction to Mr.Fensterwald’s article is the comment about wealthier Bay Area districts having parcel taxes up to $400. Piedmont’s teired tax at c. $2,000 to c. $3,500 is seemingly far more expensive than any other school support tax in the state and about to go up 5%.

    Piedmont has no senior exemption. All other high ranking districts in the state (San Marino, LaCanada, Portola Valley, Palo Alto, Arcadia, San Ramon Valley) have a senior exemption. Most districts in Piedmont’s region have a senior exemption. Piedmont is putting an 8 years tax on the ballot and has again declined to include a senior exemption.

    The tiered structure of the Piedmont tax is even more regressive than a flat parcel tax as the larger lots pay less per square foot. In an extreme case the smallest residential lot in Piedmont pays 23 times more per square foot than the largest residential lot.

  4. Left Behind Parent on Dec 5, 2012 at 11:27 am12/5/2012 11:27 am

    • 000

    A Parcel Tax is like giving drugs to an addict. Let’s cut expenses and lay off non-performing teachers FIRST. San Marino CA passed a parcel tax in 2009. Everyone, including renters who do not pay the tax, can vote on Measure E; and voters over the age of 62 were exempted from having to pay the tax. State Senator Leno needs to do more homework and make sure the parcel tax burden is equal and fair. If you vote for the measure, you should pay the tax regardless of age.


    • Navigio on Dec 5, 2012 at 11:43 am12/5/2012 11:43 am

      • 000

      San Marino has the highest district API in the state last time I checked. Are you claiming there are failing teachers there?

      I believe they also have two parcel taxes at the moment and this contributes a SIGNIFICANT amount to their yearly budget (all unrestricted revenue I might add).

      Regardless and FWIW, I know people in san Marino over 62 who pay the parcel tax anyway, because they didn’t choose/bother to opt out. Of course it’s also one of the richest areas in the state so you can’t afford a house there and not find even the large parcel tax as anything but trivial. If you’re looking for inequities, within the San Marino unified district area is probably not the place to be focused on. IMHO. :-)

  5. Regis on Dec 4, 2012 at 2:01 pm12/4/2012 2:01 pm

    • 000

    More taxes! That’s always the solution. Throw more money at any of our societal ills, especially those that our wise Government has created through failed policies. It hasn’t worked in the past and it’s not going to work now. Look at where we’re at with spending billions upon billions of dollars in our School system, educating a huge third world population, for basically free. And what are the results?

    There isn’t a DOLLAR in your pocket, that a Democrat in Sacramento would want to have to ‘redistribute’. If they could seize 100% of your earnings legally, they’d do it and in fact, are working on it.

  6. Jeff on Nov 30, 2012 at 12:48 pm11/30/2012 12:48 pm

    • 000

    “Parcel taxes are regressive; property owners of castles and cottages pay the same amount.”

    Is that more objectionable than someone who was lucky enough to have paid a fraction of the cost that his neighbors had to for an equivalent value home voting to raise ad valorem property taxes for school bonds that will cost him a small fraction of what his already heavily burdened neighbor will be forced to pay? That neighbor, with probably little equity but huge house payments, is already contributing vastly more in property taxes to fund schools and everything else with his property taxes.

    Democrats don’t really care about tax fairness, they just want more money for government.


    • edfundwonk on Dec 3, 2012 at 11:32 am12/3/2012 11:32 am

      • 000

      For clarification, your comparison is purely hypothetical. Proposition 13 (1978) prohibits increasing ad valorem (based on value) property taxes for ANY purpose including, but not limited to, school bonds. I assume, therefore, that your question is, “Are parcel taxes more regressive than ad valorem property taxes would be, if they could be raised?”

      The most inequitable aspect of Prop 13 is its “welcome stranger” method of determining a property’s assessed value, viz., property is re-assessed at market value only in cases of change of ownership or new construction. In all other cases, assessed value can increase by no more than two percent annually. Thus, two identical houses could have vastly different assessed values depending on the length of time each had been owned.

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