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Sales Tax Rejection a Heavy Blow : County must find legal way to raise revenue for much-needed jails and courts

Thursday’s state Supreme Court ruling overturning a half-cent sales tax for jails and courts is a major disappointment for San Diego County, especially in a year with a record number of homicides and a more than 16% increase in violent crime.

The tax, passed three years ago by a simple majority of voters, was an attempt to get around the two-thirds requirement of Proposition 13. But the court rejected the county’s approach. The ruling may also create chaos for other local governments around the state, which have tried similar methods.

What the San Diego County Board of Supervisors did, very poorly it turns out, was set up a countywide agency to administer the tax to build and operate jails and courts. The county argued that, because the agency was an independent board, it was exempt from the two-thirds rule. But the Supreme Court said for that to work, a special agency could not be “essentially controlled” by local government. San Diego’s was, in part, because two supervisors sat on the agency board, and the county’s jail master plan guided its decisions.

This leaves the county holding the strings, but not the purse.

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San Diego County may have been inept in its end-run around Proposition 13. But local governments have little choice but to use loopholes as long as the minority of California voters can prevent the majority from building jails, libraries, roads and public transit and from hiring more police or improving schools.

Voters are quite capable of turning down tax increases, as recent elections have shown repeatedly. But Proposition 13 makes it virtually impossible for them to exercise their rights to pass a tax. The two-thirds restriction can and should be changed. Fortunately, a simple majority of the electorate can do it. But to get such a measure on the ballot requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. Perhaps this case will provide the impetus for such a vote.

For San Diego County, the $1.6 billion that the tax would have generated was a way out of a crisis. The jail system is under a court-ordered limit of 3,829 inmates, and that number is about 1,200 more than the jails were built to accommodate. To comply with the order, thousands of people arrested for misdemeanors are just cited and released, and sentences are regularly shortened.

It’s hard to believe that the Californians who voted for Proposition 13 meant to make it this tough to build something as essential to public safety as jails.

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But almost equally hard to believe is that the county does not have a fallback plan. It didn’t develop one, apparently, because it didn’t want to appear to be anticipating defeat. The responsible course of action would have been to hope for the best while preparing for the worst, especially since the lower courts were split.

Now the county must decide whether to try again for a simple-majority tax increase or whether to put a tax measure requiring a two-thirds majority before the voters. There is little money left to squeeze out of a county budget facing a $32-million deficit.

Those are bleak choices. If the county can find a way to reconstitute the jail financing agency to meet the court’s test, it can go back to the voters for a tax increase requiring only a simple majority, and should. If not, the county has little option but to try to get two-thirds support for a tax increase, even in these tough economic times.

But, before the county returns to the voters, it should re-evaluate the criminal justice system needs. Although the criminal justice system is still in crisis, and desperately in need of money, the county has accomplished quite a bit without the jail tax revenues.

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It built a 2,000-bed jail at East Mesa and expanded the County Jail at Vista. The city of San Diego has found a way to build a 200-bed jail. And, through a creative plan of leasing space in some jails to the federal government and transferring inmates and staff to the more efficient East Mesa facility, the county could gain as many as 500 beds.

In the three years that the jail tax has been pending, law enforcement officials have also come to a better understanding of the need for crime prevention and drug treatment programs. Any new tax presented to the voters should include such preventive measures. This could be done fairly borrowing from Proposition 133, a statewide measure on the 1990 ballot.

It, too, was a half-cent sales tax. The difference was that Proposition 133 funds would have been spent on anti-drug education, law enforcement, jails and drug treatment and prevention programs. That is a sensible approach to fighting crime.

The measure was defeated, which is not encouraging. But San Diegans are used to this jail tax. It has been a part of their everyday expenditures for three years. Perhaps they would be willing to, in effect, continue paying it.

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There are few other options. The criminal justice system status quo in San Diego County is unacceptable legally and inadequate to assure either public safety or justice.


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