Loss of supermajority in Senate could doom vote on 55 percent majority for parcel tax

March 4, 2014

The dome of the California State Capitol

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The exit of two Democratic state senators – one as a result of a criminal conviction, the other by indictment – leaves supporters of a proposal to make it easier to pass a school parcel tax back where they’ve been for a decade, needing one Republican vote to put the issue before voters.

Sen. Ron Calderon’s announcement Sunday that he would take an indefinite leave of absence while awaiting trial on two dozen bribery charges leaves Senate Democrats with 26 members, just below the two-thirds, veto-proof majority of 27 votes needed to pass taxes and put constitutional amendments on the election ballot. They already had lost a cushion they had with the exit last month of Sen. Roderick Wright, D-Inglewood, who also took a leave of absence after his conviction on eight felony counts for lying about residency in his district.

Backers of a constitutional amendment on the parcel tax are cursing their luck. The proposed constitutional amendment, which was shelved last year and has yet to be formally reintroduced this year, would lower the threshold needed to pass a school parcel tax from two-thirds majority to 55 percent, the same level as it takes to pass a school construction bond.

The co-sponsors, Sens. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, were hoping this would be the year they could put the measure on the November ballot. Democrats had a two-thirds majority in both the Assembly and Senate before Wright and Calderon ran into trouble. Senators could have voted to expel one or both, leading to primary elections as early as June to elect their successors. But Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, instead allowed both Wright and Calderon to take a leave, enabling them to collect their salary while depriving Democrats of a supermajority.

Wright is hoping that a judge will throw out the conviction before his sentencing May 15. If Wright is sentenced then, Gov. Jerry Brown could call a special election, but Hill on Monday said he doubted a successor could be seated by the end of the legislative session on Aug. 15.

Hill’s predecessor, Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, had proposed a similar constitutional amendment for the 55 percent majority parcel tax during the eight years he was in the Senate, when Democrats were just shy of a supermajority, but he could never find a Republican to help get it on the ballot.

Hill said he was still hoping he could find a Republican colleague willing to let voters decide for themselves whether the lower threshold was a good idea. That will not be easy in an election year. A spokesman for Sen. Jean Fuller, a former school superintendent from Bakersfield, said the senator would express no opinion until she has seen the actual wording. A spokesman for Sen. Anthony Cannella, viewed as an independent voice on some issues, said he has opposed the idea. To build a broader base of support, one option would be to broaden the proposed amendment to lower to 55 percent the threshold for transportation and library bonds as well. A spokesperson from Leno’s office said Monday that the senator remains committed to moving forward with the proposed amendment this year.

Parcel taxes must be uniform by law: Cottages, castles and multi-unit dwellings must pay the same amount. Although parcel taxes are a regressive form of taxation, they also are one of the few ways that local districts can boost revenues for their schools. They’ve been most prevalent in the Bay Area, but over the past four decades, only about 124 districts – about one in eight – have passed them and only about one in 10 now have them in effect, according to a 2013 research study by EdSource. That study, Raising Revenues Locally, found that, had the 55 percent threshold been in effect from the start, 87 percent of parcel tax proposals overall would have passed, compared with just over half approved under the two-thirds requirement. Those districts in between 55 percent and two-thirds had a significantly higher percentage of English learners and low-income children than the districts that successfully enacted a parcel tax under current law.

Two polls in 2013, by the Public Policy Institute of California and by USC Dornsife/LA Times, found less than half of voters liked the idea. However, the enactment of the Local Control Funding Formula last year, returning control over budgeting decisions to local school districts, made proponents optimistic that more voters would be open to new, easier-to-pass options for additional revenue.

The loss of the two-thirds majority also could affect Brown’s proposals to amend a ballot measure, already scheduled to go before voters in November, strengthening the state’s rainy day fund.

John Fensterwald covers education policy. Contact him and follow him on Twitter @jfenster. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.

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