Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Assembly Constitutional Amendment 13 is an attack on you, the California taxpayer

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Ever since California’s first state constitution in 1849, constitutional amendments have required a majority vote of the electorate.

“If the people shall approve or ratify such amendment or amendments by a majority of the electors qualified to vote for members of the legislature, voting thereon, such amendment or amendments shall become part of the Constitution,” the handwritten document states.

That provision applied to all proposed constitutional amendments. At no time in the state’s history have constitutional amendments had different thresholds for voter approval based on their content.

But the new speaker of the California Assembly, Robert Rivas, has decided this is a problem. He has proposed changing the constitution to impose a higher vote threshold for certain types of amendments proposed by citizen initiatives.

Along with Assemblymember Chris Ward, D-San Diego, Rivas has co-authored Assembly Constitutional Amendment 13, which would make it more difficult to pass constitutional amendments that make it more difficult to raise taxes.

For example, if an initiative constitutional amendment would require that tax increases must be approved by two-thirds of voters, the proposed amendment itself would require a two-thirds vote.

It doesn’t work the other way, though. If a citizen initiative would drop the requirement to pass a tax increase from two-thirds to 55%, for example, it wouldn’t need 55% approval. It would pass with 50%-plus-one-vote, like all other constitutional amendments.

This is nothing more than an effort to prevent citizens from using the initiative process to limit tax increases. Under this proposed amendment, even Proposition 13 would not have passed. California’s iconic taxpayer protection act was approved by 64.79% of voters in 1978. Under ACA 13, it would have needed 66.67%, because it contained a provision that required a two-thirds vote of the electorate to pass local tax increases.

California court rulings have chipped away at Proposition 13’s taxpayer protections. In 1982, the state Supreme Court ruled in City and County of San Francisco v. Farrell that local taxes for general purposes, as opposed to “special” taxes for a dedicated purpose, could pass with a simple majority instead of a two-thirds vote.

In 2017, the state Supreme Court’s opinion in California Cannabis Coalition vs. City of Upland suggested that even “special” taxes might not need a two-thirds vote if they were proposed by a citizens’ initiative, instead of by a city council or other governing body. Cities immediately tested the limits of the court’s language and found appellate courts more than willing to allow tax increases proposed by initiative to pass with a simple majority.

A new initiative that has qualified for the November 2024 ballot contains language that overrides appellate court decisions based on the Upland ruling and restores the two-thirds vote requirement for special taxes regardless of how they are proposed.

ACA 13 appears to be an attempted kill shot aimed at that initiative, which proponents, who include the California Business Roundtable and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, have titled “The Taxpayer Protection and Government Accountability Act.”

It’s unseemly to try to manipulate the state constitution in order to defeat the taxpayer protections enshrined by Proposition 13. Rivas has been speaker of the Assembly for less than two months, and he’s entitled to a few rookie mistakes. This is one of them.

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