To Pass Taxes, Voters Need a Reason to Trust
In questioning what originally was planned as a $2-billion bond package for city capital improvements, Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan suggested that any bond proposal should include a citizens oversight committee to assure voters that the money would be spent as planned.
Riordan’s model for his proposal is the citizen’s oversight committee created by the Los Angeles Unified School District bond passed last year. Seventy-one percent of voters surprised political experts by supporting the school repair and building measure, Proposition BB--at $2.4 billion the largest local bond in American history. A number of observers credited the creation of a citizens’ oversight committee to watch Proposition BB money with bolstering the confidence of a skeptical electorate, enabling the proposition to gain more than the required two-thirds majority vote.
Success being the mother of imitation, oversight committees have become the rage with public officials who believe they might have found the antidote for the electorate’s allergic reaction against tax increases or shifting spending priorities.
Riordan’s plan is only the latest in the wake of Proposition BB’s victory. A measure by state Sen. Jack O’Connell (D-San Luis Obispo) to lower the two-thirds vote requirement for local school construction bonds includes a provision for oversight committees. A similar provision appeared in Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s now defunct education reform initiative. And Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky’s November ballot initiative calls for redirecting local MTA transportation tax revenue under the gaze of a nonelected oversight committee.
Do appointed citizen oversight committees represent a healthy trend? An oversight committee is a political crutch, for both elected officials and voters. In essence, the officials are saying to voters, you may not trust us with new taxes, but trust your fellow citizens.
A sea of mistakes washing over taxpayer funded projects has eroded trust. For example, the city of Los Angeles used bond money for purchasing a building instead of the intended and advertised purpose of providing sprinkler systems for city offices. Police stations promised in another city bond never were built.
At the county level, Yaroslavsky knows that cost overruns, corruption and mismanagement at the MTA have undermined all confidence in a transportation authority that voters twice supported with tax increases over the past two decades.
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. agreed to sit on the Proposition BB school oversight committee before the election because we recognized the need for improving school facilities, but like our fellow citizens, distrusted the school board’s effectiveness in managing the money.
Our experience the first year of the oversight committee has confirmed our initial suspicions. The school board blatantly attempted to relegate the oversight committee to simple hindsight bean-counting efforts. The bureaucracy repeatedly tried to shield itself from critical scrutiny by the oversight committee.
The Proposition BB oversight committee has had an impact, however, because former Superior Court Judge Diane Wayne understood the importance to the voters of the committee’s inclusion in the bond measure. She ruled early on that the committee would conduct independent oversight of expenditures by issuing recommendations to the school board before the board approved bond projects.
What success the BB oversight committee has achieved is because of a judge’s defining decision, determined oversight by committee members and extensive media interest in the school bond proceedings. All of these have provided the committee with independence and clout. It is hard to imagine that other oversight committees around the state would enjoy similar fortuitous circumstances.
Of course, providing complete independence to an oversight committee is not always a good thing. Another oversight committee endured stinging criticism a few months ago for boosting salaries for state elected officials 26% and more.
Oversight committees may be effective in certain circumstances, but they cannot replace an elected body carrying out the will of the voters. The demise of oversight committees will be a healthy sign for democracy, signaling that elected officials have once again earned trust from the electorate.
In the meantime, however, oversight committees serve as a bridge over the credibility chasm that separates most government bodies and the people they are elected to serve.