County Delegation Split Over Sales Tax Expiration

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Ventura County’s delegation of lawmakers has split largely along party lines over allowing a temporary half-cent sales tax to expire this summer, even though it probably would force the cash-starved state government to tighten its belt one more notch.

Two Republican lawmakers say they want to see the half-cent levy lifted as planned at midnight June 30, a move that would reduce Ventura County’s sales tax rate from 7.25% to 6.75%. A third Republican, Assemblyman Nao Takasugi (D-Oxnard), said he’s leaning that way but has yet to make up his mind.

But the delegation’s two Democrats say they will fight to keep the tax going for at least one more year. It does little to hurt the general economy, they argue, and the state can ill afford to do without the proceeds at a time when education and health programs face drastic shortfalls in funding.


“If the options are closing schools or early release of prisoners, I clearly come down on the side of keeping the sales tax on for another year,” said Assemblyman Jack O’Connell (D-Carpinteria), whose district includes Ventura, Ojai and Santa Paula.

The delegation’s split along party lines foreshadows what many experts say will be a bitter partisan war over the half-cent tax this summer, pitting Gov. Pete Wilson against the Democrat-dominated Legislature.

Initially, Wilson asked for the half-cent levy as part of a $7-billion tax-increase package in 1991 and is adamant about allowing the tax to die--as initially intended. In approving the temporary sales tax, the Legislature agreed that the tax would only last two years.

Wilson assumed the tax would no longer be generating revenue when he proposed his austere $51.2-billion spending plan earlier this month.

To continue the half-cent tax, Wilson maintains, would further sap the state’s recession-ridden economy, drive more businesses out of California and--most of all--break faith with the voters.

But Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) has already come out for extending the tax, which nets $1.5 billion a year statewide. As expected, he is supported by O’Connell--who as speaker pro tempore is Brown’s top lieutenant in the lower house--and Sen. Gary Hart (D-Santa Barbara).


O’Connell cautioned that, in the ever-shifting machinations of state budget fights, it is difficult to say whether the sales tax will continue to be a sore point, much less a viable option in the coming months.

“The budget’s a puzzle,” he said. “It’s difficult to put one piece of the puzzle in without all of the pieces being inserted simultaneously.”

But O’Connell said the prospect of continuing the tax should “remain on the table.” He also said that even those favoring its extension don’t want to keep the levy forever.

“I’m not proposing, neither is the Speaker, that it be in concrete, ad infinitum, but that it simply be continued for a year,” said O’Connell, adding that “not one business person has ever told me that the sales tax is a problem” for the state’s economy.

“Workers’ compensation. Excessive regulations. Sort of a psychological ‘we’re not appreciated’ mentality. The high cost of living. Those are the problems,” O’Connell said.

Hart, who is chairman of the Senate Education Commission and is eyeing a run for superintendent of public instruction, said lifting the sales tax would have a “devastating effect” on California schools and “keeping California whole. I don’t see how we can do what the governor wants.”


Asked if his support of the tax broke a promise to voters, Hart added: “I don’t think so. You have to look at these things on a case-by-case basis, what the new circumstances and situations are.

“If I recall correctly, this (the temporary tax) was meant to be when the economy was down. When the economy returned and other sources of revenue, we could let go of this. I assumed by July of 1993, we’d be out of this. . . . Clearly, we are not.”

Hart suggested the governor’s statements about the sales tax were meant as a budgetary negotiation tactic. “The people I talk to around here, at least the conservative Republicans, say, ‘Yeah, the sales tax has got to stay.’ I’ll be surprised if it is not maintained.”

Two of the county’s Republicans, however, say they are resolute about killing the tax.

“I think it (the tax) is detrimental to the economy and continuing it does not enhance the budget,” Sen. Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley) said.

Wright said she had no hesitation in voting against a tax extension, and she said the governor has vowed to block any renewal with his veto.

“I would take him at his word, that he’s going to veto it,” Wright said. “He’s shown right up front in the last budget go ‘round that if he’s not going to do it, he’s not going to do it. I don’t see him reneging on it.”


Assemblywoman Paula Boland (R-Granada Hills) maintained that lawmakers had to keep their promises to the public and put more money into the hands of Californians.

“Just because somebody doesn’t know a law (is supposed to expire) doesn’t mean we aren’t bound to uphold our word,” she said. “. . . You make a commitment to the voter that it’s going to expire and then you find 15 excuses for it not to do so--that’s unconscionable.”

The only Republican who indicated he is undecided about the tax was Takasugi, who said he’s leaning against it for now but left the door open to change his mind as the budget debate drags on.

“That’s a difficult question to ask, picking just one item out of this budget,” he said. “Previously, I was in favor of letting that snack tax go. I was never in favor of it and I was happy to have it die out.

“At this point, we’re looking for this (half-cent sales tax) to sunset on June 30. I’m in favor of that, but I haven’t made up my mind yet. I have to look at the overall budget and make a decision.”