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.