When voters decide whether to approve a new tax on the ballot, it’s important that they have all the relevant information: what the tax is for, how much it will cost them, and for how long it will last.
This was the theory behind a sensible and bipartisan transparency measure California enacted in 2017 that required ballot labels for tax or bond measures to describe the amount to be raised each year, the duration of the levy and the rate. The ballot label is the 75-word description of the measure that’s printed on the ballot voters take into the voting booth or fill out at home. But now a coalition of local governments, building trades and housing advocates are trying to exempt bonds and many taxes from that transparency requirement. And they are doing it in a sneaky way, by making a last-minute end run around the normal legislative hearing process.
They claim these changes are needed because voters get confused when faced with all the numbers required on the ballot for a school bond or tiered city tax, causing them to automatically say no. The 75-word limit makes it so difficult to fully explain a complicated new tax, they claim, that there’s almost no point in trying. It would be so much easier, they say, if the ballot simply directed voters to the voters guide for more details.
But there’s no evidence that confusion is causing voters to reject new taxes. In fact, the opposite seems true. In 2018, the first year the transparency measure was in effect, the vast majority of local tax and bonds passed. According to the California Taxpayers Assn., of the 398 bond measures on various county, city and school ballots on November, 327 passed. For all those voters with a presumptive fear of numbers, that works out to an approval rate of more than three-fourths.
Instead of hard evidence of the ballot language requirement confusing voters, proponents of the new measure (Senate Bill 268) offer anecdotes about how a handful of local governments decided not to put something on the ballot after surveying voters and getting disappointing results. Here’s one example: When the Clovis Unified School District was thinking about floating a bond, it polled residents with two questions earlier this year. The first asked people if they would support “$408 million in bonds at legal rates [to] be adopted, requiring independent audits, citizens oversight, all funds for local schools.” It drew more affirmative responses than the second, which went into more detail: “$408 million in bonds, at legal rates, by levying 6¢ per $100 assessed valuation raising approximately $30 million annually while bonds are outstanding, [to] be adopted, requiring independent audits, citizens oversight, all funds for local schools.”
Oof. That is a bit confusing, but perhaps only because it is awkwardly written. And even so, there’s no proof voters wouldn’t have supported it.
Voters arguably might appreciate a less weedily detailed explanation than the law requires, and we certainly wouldn’t want vital new taxes to be sabotaged by a well-intentioned effort to inform voters. But removing the requirement altogether seems an overreaction at this point. The author of the 2017 law, Assemblyman Jay Obernolte (R-Big Bear Lake), offered a compromise, proposing to require ballot labels on tax and bond measures just to disclose that the measures would raise taxes and to refer voters to the official voters guide for more details. That was turned down on the grounds that it could be misleading in some cases, such as when a new parcel tax will replace an expiring one.
If local governments are worried that they can’t sell voters on complicated new tax schemes in 75 words or less, then they need to work on their communications skills. Voters can’t be expected to read a treatise in the voting booth, but they can expect to be informed, clearly and succinctly, what’s at stake.