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COMMENTARY ON TAXES : It’s ‘Maintenance Assessment’ Law That Needs Repair Work : School districts’ whitewash isn’t fooling the taxpayer. Cracks in Proposition 13’s foundation are showing.

<i> Lewis, a Republican, represents the state's 35th Senate District in north-central Orange County</i>

Californians are suffering from a seemingly endless parade of new taxes. If it’s not another raise in the federal gasoline tax, it’s the state taking an extra one and a quarter cents out of every dollar you spend. Government at all levels can never seem to get enough of the taxpayers’ money.

The latest entries into the parade are some of our local school districts levying a new property fee without a vote of the people. Although it is masquerading as a “maintenance assessment district,” semantic contortionism can’t disguise what it really is: a new property tax.

As one affected property owner put it, “They call it a maintenance assessment district, but it reads like a tax, smells like a tax and acts like a tax.” The school districts that have imposed or considered imposing this new tax cite the Landscaping and Lighting Act of 1972 as legal justification for this new exaction.

What they’ve really done is misuse a state law enacted to allow public agencies to levy property assessments for road maintenance and beautification. The author of that bill, Sen. Robert Beverly (R-Redondo Beach), states that the 1972 law was never intended for use by school districts.

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Ironically, this disturbing trend has manifested itself most visibly in Orange County, the state’s conservative heartland. So far, two school districts have levied this new property tax--Orange Unified and Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified school districts. Four other school districts, banding together under the rubric of the West Orange County Schools Finance Authority, levied a $50-per-parcel tax on July 25.

At each public hearing, hundreds of angry property owners voiced their opposition to the boards’ plans to impose the tax. The West Orange County hearing, for example, was attended by more than 1,000 people, 90% of whom vocally demonstrated their just hostility to this underhanded form of taxation.

Happily, the West Orange County districts relented under ferocious pressure from the would-be taxed and rescinded the assessment on Aug. 6. Placentia-Yorba Linda followed suit Aug. 9. However, the Orange assessment is still scheduled to go into effect.

To their credit, several other school boards that were considering this new tax heeded the public will and voted it down.

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Advocates of this new property tax claim the issue is whether or not we’re willing to pay for quality education. Nothing could be further from the truth. No one disputes that our schools deserve adequate funding, but this sneaky tax is not the solution.

Even as we speak, the battle has been joined on the judicial and legislative fronts. On the former, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. has filed a lawsuit against the Orange Unified School District, charging it with misusing the Landscaping and Lighting Act and violating the intent of Proposition 13.

On the legislative front, I have drafted legislation that would bring the levying of school assessment districts in line with the spirit of Proposition 13. If enacted, this bill will accomplish two things. First, it would require that school or community college districts could not impose this maintenance tax without the approval of two-thirds of the voters. Second, in the case of existing school maintenance taxes, these could be renewed only by a two-thirds vote of the people.

Unless my legislation is passed, we will have to fight this battle over and over again in dozens of school districts across the state, at great expense in time and money.

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The tax-and-spend crowd in Sacramento recently socked us with $7 billion in new taxes, which will cost the average family of four $1,050 in lost income each year. Now, many local school boards seek to saddle the taxpayer with an additional burden.

Enough is enough. The stakes are simply too high to allow this end-run around Proposition 13 and property rights to succeed.


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