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A Case for Reform of Prop. 13 Limit

Whether San Diego County officials “purposely circumvented” Proposition 13 by getting the Legislature to allow a simple majority vote on a sales tax increase for jails and courts--as a Superior court judge recently ruled--is a question of legal definitions best decided by the courts.

But the circuitous route the Board of Supervisors took to get to this point illustrates the deteriorating condition of state and local government planning and financing and should concern all residents.

The 1978 citizens initiative that slashed property taxes may have saved Californians more than $115 billion in taxes in the past 11 years. But Proposition 13, along with the restrictions it spawned, has bled vital government functions, such as the criminal justice system.

San Diego County jails hold more than twice their state-rated capacity, and thousands of people who should be incarcerated each year aren’t.

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Meanwhile, plans for jails to accommodate growth are stymied. Without additional revenue from local or state taxes, county officials have few realistic sources to replace the $1.6 billion the sales tax would have provided for jails and courts for the

next 20 years. That sort of money can’t be squeezed from current budgets, even if whole programs such as libraries and parks are eliminated.

The reason is that the Board of Supervisors has direct control over only a fraction of the $1.2-billion current budget. The remainder goes for such mandated programs as health care and legal defenses for the poor, many of which are also underfunded.

The money also is unlikely to come from the state without additional taxes or bond measures, because Sacramento is in the same Proposition 13 mire.

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Even if the sales tax is upheld, however, only the immediate crisis is addressed. Until there is meaningful statewide reform of Proposition 13 and spending restrictions, there will be one crisis after another with piecemeal solutions rather than rational long-term planning.

Whichever way the lawsuit is decided, we hope that a byproduct of the challenge is to focus attention on the need for such reform and to build much-needed political support for it.


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