Local elections held in odd-numbered years in California don’t generally have much meaning outside their immediate communities.
But a June 4 vote scheduled in Los Angeles might be different. This is a yes/no decision on a huge parcel tax proposed by the local school district, the second largest in America. There’s little else on the ballot, just one school board seat and no other major offices.
So nothing should divert voter attention away from the parcel tax vote, and a very light turnout can be expected. A large portion of those who vote may belong to groups standing to benefit from the measure: parents of schoolchildren, members of the United Teachers of Los Angeles union and members of the Service Employees International Union, many of whom work in the schools.
Which means that even in an odd-year election, when voting is normally dominated by conservative anti-tax forces, this $500 million-a-year plan has a chance to win. If it does, expect more and more school districts around the state to place large parcel taxes on their own odd-year local ballots.
There is little doubt the Los Angeles Unified district, laced with dilapidated buildings, large classes, temporary classrooms, peeling paint and poorly maintained athletic fields, needs more money. But this much?
The district’s board voted last winter to place Measure EE on the local ballot. Most parcel taxes hit each piece of property equally, whether it’s commercial or residential, no matter what is built on any parcel.
That’s about as unfair a tax as exists today, hitting big box stores and tiny homes equally.
But EE is slightly different. It taxes properties according to how many square feet of building they contain. The rate is 16 cents per constructed square foot, but garages will not be included. A typical 1,500-square-foot bungalow would see taxes increase by $240 per year, a substantial sum for many folks whose homes make up most of their wealth.
Meanwhile, a 55,000-square-foot shopping mall would pay $8,800 per year, an oil refinery or a privately-owned sports arena like Staples Center much more.
The school district says all the money will go toward raising teacher salaries, lowering class sizes and providing more resources and aides to teachers. And the actual take could far exceed the half-billion-dollar yearly estimate.
So juicy is this measure that it has even united feuding unions and charter school advocates. The SEIU has put $300,000 into the measure so far, while charter school backer Eli Broad, the B in KB Homes, donated $250,000. Biggest donor is Steve Ballmer, a former Microsoft kingpin who owns the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team. His proposed new arena in Inglewood would not be affected by this parcel tax.
It’s obvious why the Los Angeles district and others prefer parcel taxes these days over other levies: Other local school taxes are shared with Sacramento, much of the funds distributed among the state’s poorest districts; parcel taxes stay home.
One issue this measure may help solve is whether it takes a simple majority to pass a special-purpose local tax like this one or the two-thirds majority stipulated in Proposition 13, the landmark 1978 initiative that limits property taxes.
The state Supreme Court implied, but did not actually state, in a ruling two years ago that school tax initiatives might need only a simple majority to pass. That case involved a measure placed on the ballot by voters; this one comes from the school board.
Battles over the level of support needed for new taxes are now playing in the courts, the outcomes sure to affect votes in many districts soon.
But all current lawsuits are over initiatives. If this one goes to the state’s high court, likely if it wins more than a majority, but less than two-thirds of the vote, the issue could be settled quickly. Because this is purely a state constitutional issue, the U.S. Supreme Court probably won’t be involved.
The bottom line: This Los Angeles vote will directly affect only property owners and pupils within one large school district. But the entire state should be watching closely because it has implications everywhere.
Elias’s email address is email@example.com