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Sales Tax Initiative to Pay for San Diego Jails Struck Down

Times Staff Writer

In a decision that could have far-reaching implications, a Superior Court judge on Thursday struck down a half-cent sales tax narrowly approved by San Diego County voters last June to raise $1.6 billion for new jails and courts on the grounds that the measure violated Proposition 13.

Ruling that county officials “purposely circumvented” Proposition 13’s requirement of a two-thirds vote for approval of new taxes, Riverside County Superior Court Judge Gordon Burkhart accepted opponents’ arguments that voters’ 50.6% support for the sales tax was insufficient for its adoption. Accordingly, Burkhart ruled the Proposition A election invalid.

That decision not only will exacerbate, at least temporarily, San Diego’s longstanding problems of jail overcrowding and a badly overextended court system, but also has statewide import.

If upheld on appeal, Burkhart’s ruling could pose problems for other counties that were closely watching the San Diego case for guidance on meeting criminal justice and other needs.

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Los Angeles officials had not had an opportunity to review the ruling, but a spokeswoman for the county Transportation Commission said it did not appear the ruling would disrupt an existing half-cent sales tax for transit. That tax, which generates more than $300 million a year for rail projects and bus service, was approved by 54% of the voters in 1980. In 1982, the state Supreme Court ruled the tax did not violate Proposition 13 because it was not a “special” tax requiring two-thirds voter approval.

But commission spokeswoman Erica Gobel said it is not clear how Thursday’s ruling might affect a possible future ballot drive officials are considering to increase the sales tax for highway projects.

The lawsuit that spawned Thursday’s decision was heard in Riverside County Superior Court last December, with that site having been selected because of San Diego judges’ obvious conflict of interest on a matter affecting future courtroom space.

Legal ratifications of Proposition A, lawyers on both sides of the case agree, would make it easier to fatten civic treasuries by eliminating the need for the formidable two-thirds margin for new taxes mandated by Proposition 13, the landmark property tax-cutting initiative approved by California voters in 1978.

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“It’s tough to win a case against the government or to overturn an election, but we always felt we had the facts and the law on our side,” said a jubilant Thomas Homann, one of seven attorneys who filed the lawsuit on behalf of two Libertarian Party members and a leader of the 100-member United Taxpayers of San Diego. “It’s gratifying that the judge saw Proposition A for what it was: a ruse to circumvent Proposition 13.”

County leaders sought to minimize their disappointment by describing Thursday’s decision as simply the first round in a legal battle expected to ultimately reach the California Supreme Court.

“I’m very disappointed, but this isn’t the end of the world, either,” Supervisor George Bailey said.

In the suit, attorney Louis Katz, Homann and their five colleagues described the 1987 state legislation that set the stage for last June’s Proposition A campaign as a “sham” that illegally circumvented both the spirit and letter of Proposition 13.

The 1987 law set up the Regional Justice Facility Financing Agency to administer revenues generated by Proposition A--estimated at $1.6 billion over its 10-year life. The funds, in turn, would be spent in accordance with plans developed and approved by the county Board of Supervisors.

The primary purpose behind the creation of the agency, Katz argued, was to “exploit loopholes” in Proposition 13 created by California Supreme Court rulings exempting local agencies not authorized to levy property taxes from the two-thirds vote requirement.

Because the financing agency was not empowered to levy a property tax, officials reasoned that a simple majority vote would be sufficient for approval of a sales tax measure to support the agency’s work.

But opponents of the tactic argued that because the agency’s expenditures were governed by plans drawn up and approved by the county Board of Supervisors, which does have power to levy a property tax, the whole notion was a sham to bypass Proposition 13.

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Judge Burkhart agreed, writing that the financing agency “was founded solely for the purpose of avoiding the strictures of Proposition 13.”


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