The bottom line on taxes

Ernest Cowles is the director of the Institute for Social Research and Tim Hodson is executive director of the Center for California Studies.

Death and taxes may be inevitable, but among the Los Angeles City Council, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and, most important, California voters, opposition to taxes is not. On Tuesday, the City Council approved an increase in the trash fee. The governor has proposed a hike in the state sales tax. And last year, voters approved an unprecedented number of local tax measures. The 2007 election results, although not conclusive, give little support to the rhetoric and assumptions driving the budget debate in Sacramento. Californians will and do support new or increased taxes, though not every tax.

Last year, local voters faced 61 tax measures, of which 45 -- 74% -- were approved, nearly a third by supermajority two-thirds votes. This is the highest rate for local tax measures since 1995 and much higher than the average pass rate of 51% in the 12 years of data compiled by the California Election Data Archive. The CEDA is a database of all county, city, school and community college district election results, compiled by two research units at Cal State Sacramento (the Center for California Studies and the Institute for Social Research) and the California secretary of state.

The remarkable success of these tax measures occurred at all levels of local government. Two out of the three county tax measures were approved, as were 29 of 40 city measures and 14 of 18 school district measures. Voters increased parcel taxes, sales taxes, utility taxes, hotel or occupancy taxes and an oil production tax. The majority of new or increased taxes were parcel taxes (i.e., a tax based on the size, rather than the value, of real estate).


Eleven cities had tax measures, of which three-quarters were approved. Those cities represented a mix of large (Long Beach) and small (Selma); urban (Monrovia) and rural (Ceres); affluent (Palo Alto) and poor (Delano); Democratic (Palo Alto) and Republican (Desert Hot Springs).

The results of school and community college district elections were similar and from similarly diverse areas. Voters in 18 school districts passed measures to create, increase or extend parcel taxes; 14 passed. The four school measures that were defeated got more than 50% of the vote, but failed to reach the requisite two-thirds supermajority. That level of support is not surprising given that since 1995, voters have been more inclined to approve education-related tax measures than those for public safety, transportation or other purposes.

The success of tax measures in 2007 was striking, but the fact is that local voters for years have supported more tax measures than they have defeated. Since the CEDA started collecting data in 1996, half of all local tax measures have been approved, many by two-thirds supermajorities. Many more would have passed if not for the two-thirds requirement.

Poll data also tend to reflect the realities of the voting booth. For example, in June, the Field Poll found Californians willing to increase certain taxes -- such as those on tobacco, liquor, business and high incomes -- while opposed to increases in sales and property taxes. They also seemed more willing to support taxes dedicated to specific functions, such as education and healthcare.

The bottom line is that the actions of local voters give scant support to the budget cliches of either the right or the left. The GOP position of “no new taxes” does not reflect the decisions and preferences of California voters who for years have supported a majority of local tax measures. The Democratic position that Californians are ready and willing to support any new tax is overstated, given both the failure of some measures and the popularity of taxes designated for specific purposes as opposed to those aimed at general public spending.

More than two centuries ago, Edmund Burke, the great Irish-British philosopher and practical politician, observed that “to tax and to please, no more than to love and to be wise, is not given to men.” Today, Burke’s comment could be usefully modified as “to tax and to please is not given to Californians who, nonetheless, have taxed themselves time and again if the need be clear and the purpose meritorious.”