George Skelton

By George Skelton Capitol Journal
December 12, 2012, 6:07 p.m.

When nearly two-thirds of the citizenry vote to tax themselves to expand transit but don’t prevail, then democracy has gone cockeyed.

If a small minority can thwart the will of the vast majority on a routine local tax issue, it’s absurd.

This, of course, is what happened last month when Los Angeles County voters overwhelmingly supported Measure J to extend a half-cent sales tax for transit. But the vote fell roughly a half-percentage point short of the necessary two-thirds majority.

Ordinarily — except in California’s dysfunctional government financing system — that would be called a landslide victory.

The same thing happened in two other counties, Alameda and Lake, where tax measures for transportation and waterworks drew landslide support but fell short of two-thirds.

The two-thirds vote barrier creates a paralysis that Democratic legislators, with their new supermajority power, will have the ability to help remedy in the next two years.

There’ll be several proposals to place measures on the 2014 ballot to lower the 66.7% vote requirement to 55% for taxes and bonds.

Even the 55% threshold is undemocratic. But it’s a supermajority that the public may accept, polls suggest. And it’s in line with what Californians concluded in 2000 was a high enough requirement for school bond issues.

The political problem is that anti-tax icon, Proposition 13, which not only dramatically lowered property taxes but created several unintended consequences. Chief among them was shifting of much citizen control over local government spending and taxing to the state Capitol.

When Prop. 13 slashed property tax revenue for schools and local governments, the state — led by Gov. Jerry Brown 1 — rushed in with a $5-billion bailout. State spending soared, and the locals became addicted to Sacramento’s largess.

California government became a Byzantine mishmash of the state dictating to locally elected officials how to administer community services, and often not providing enough money. For three decades there has been a disconnect between who mostly pays (the state) and who mostly spends (the locals).

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