CAPITOL JOURNAL

Help school districts by letting them raise their own tax revenue

To do so, the state Legislature would need to reduce the voter threshold needed for levying parcel taxes from two-thirds to 55%.

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown wants to help inner-city schools at the expense of suburbanites. But there must be a better way to assist the disadvantaged than to trigger class warfare.

And there is. It is to give school districts a better opportunity to raise their own tax revenue.

That could involve reducing the voter threshold needed for levying parcel taxes from two-thirds to 55%.

This idea currently is kicking around the Legislature. But so far it hasn't been linked to Brown's new school-funding proposal, which I liken to robbing Peter to pay Paul.

"If a new school spending formula is going to be discussed, and if there are going to be winners and losers, one way to mitigate that is to give all schools better tools for raising revenue than they have now," says Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), chairman of the Senate Budget Committee.

Leno is proposing legislation that would allow school districts to raise parcel taxes for day-to-day operations by a 55% vote. They already can raise construction money by securing a 55% vote for bond issues.

Referring to Brown's proposed spending formula and his own parcel tax legislation, Leno says: "You can see how logistically the two interplay. The point they both have in common is greater local control."

Brown's plan also would provide more spending flexibility for schools by eliminating requirements for so-called categorical programs, such as busing, textbooks and career tech.

One philosophical problem with the parcel tax is that it's very regressive. The taxes aren't levied based on value or wealth, such as with property or income. A parcel that holds a bank building is taxed the same as one with a peeling bungalow.

But it's the only tax available to school districts.

Another idea being mulled over in Capitol backrooms is to permit school districts to also levy other types of taxes with voter approval — such as a sales tax. The Legislature could allow that simply by passing a bill on a majority vote.

But the sales tax still would need to be approved by local voters on a two-thirds vote. To reduce that threshold to 55% would require a state constitutional amendment — necessitating a two-thirds legislative vote and approval of the statewide electorate.

Allowing school districts more opportunity to raise their own revenue could be beneficial in two ways:

It would enable inner-city districts to help themselves without tapping suburban schools. Local voters, if they didn't want to pay a higher sales tax for their schools, could pass a parcel tax that would hit many absentee landlords.

Burdened by a two-thirds vote requirement, about half the proposed school district parcel taxes have failed over the last 30 years.

If Brown's proposed funding shift were approved by the Legislature, suburban districts could compensate for their loss by raising, say, a local sales tax.

I asked the governor at a news conference last week his view of enhancing school districts' local control by providing them more opportunity to raise their own revenue. He was noncommittal.

"I'm not prepared to opine on that," Brown replied. "You are right. You're raising a point of control and what are all the aspects of control. But I am not going to go there in January."

The implication was that maybe he'd go there in June when he's in deep budget negotiations with the Legislature.

Then Brown added, suddenly slapping on his fiscal conservative hat: "I'm also mindful of the fact that we just had a tax measure....

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