Cities Give, State Takes Away: Let's Change That

Bev Perry is mayor of Brea and president of the Southern California Assn. of Governments. Ron Bates is a Los Alamitos City Council member and past president of the League of California Cities.

Is it really a radical idea to let California voters decide whether their local tax dollars should stay at home or be used to finance the growth of state government? We don't think so. That is why we are joining a growing number of local elected officials across our state who think the time has come to let the voters decide this important issue.

The League of California Cities is proposing a statewide initiative that would allow the state's voters to decide whether they want local funds to be taken for state purposes. The initiative is currently being drafted in concert with the California State Assn. of Counties and, we hope, will appear on the November 2004 statewide ballot.

During the past decade, the state has taken more than $30 billion in local property taxes from counties, cities and special districts to meet its obligation to fund schools. Diverting the funds allows the state to keep spending on other necessary things. But even in the budget surplus years of the late 1990s, the state was still taking local property tax dollars to increase the size of state government. That growth came at the expense of local government budgets for police, fire, emergency medical services, parks, libraries, street maintenance and other community services.

For the last two years city, county and special-district officials have joined forces to fight legislative efforts to drain valuable local tax revenue to fund state government. We've enjoyed some success, in part because of the hard work of our statewide LOCAL (Leave Our Community Assets Local) coalition, which fights to safeguard local government revenue.

Despite these efforts, when the state Legislature this past year had to choose between trimming state services or paying cities and counties the funds that were owed them from the vehicle license fee reduction, legislators told us to wait three years for the promised payment. And, for the second year in a row, Sacramento again "deferred" constitutionally required reimbursements for unfunded state mandates.

We need protection now more than ever as politicians in Sacramento discuss getting rid of the vehicle fee funds or the "backfill," another source of money that's required to keep local governments' budgets whole. That would mean an additional $4-billion loss to local government. Those funds pay for essential services including law enforcement, fire protection and emergency medical response. Rescinding the recent vehicle fee increase without providing local governments with another source of revenue will force local service cuts and reductions that will have a direct impact on every resident of this state and our state's economic health.

The Legislature also took $135 million in local redevelopment property taxes to fund the state budget. Cities could have used that money to create jobs and build housing. So, whether times are good or bad, the state keeps taking money from precious local services and job creation projects.

You're right if all of these budget shenanigans sound like some kind of Rube Goldberg contraption that's designed to hide from taxpayers where their money is going. We believe that this kind of action has to stop. That is why we support the simple idea contained in the proposed initiative by the League of California Cities: Let voters decide if they want their local tax dollars to continue being siphoned away to support state government.

The proposed initiative won't take any money away from schools or local governments. It won't raise taxes and it won't prevent the vehicle fee from being lowered. It also won't prevent the Legislature or voters from enacting comprehensive structural financial reforms that will end the state's perpetual budget problems.

It simply says that it is high time to put the state's voters in charge of determining whether their taxes should stay at home or go to the state.

Some, of course, want the status quo. Others don't want to change the system because they trust the Legislature or believe things will get better. But cities have been down this road too many times before. We don't have faith in the status quo. We are willing to trust the voters.

Let the voters decide. After all, it's their tax money.

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