Appellate Courts

David Garrick
By David Garrick | March 23, 2016 – 8:35 p.m.

San Diego — In a decision that could have a sweeping impact across California, a new state appeals court ruling may ease approval of local tax increases if they are placed on the ballot by citizen’s initiative instead of by a government agency.

The ruling by the Fourth District Court of Appeal could allow such tax increases, including one the Chargers may propose for a new downtown stadium, to be approved by a simple majority instead of two-thirds of voters.

Attorneys from across California offered divergent opinions on Wednesday about whether the ruling does indeed eliminate the two-thirds requirement, and also disagreed about its chances of eventually being overturned by the state Supreme Court.

Most agreed, however, that it was a landmark ruling that casts doubt for the first time on whether citizen’s initiatives that include tax increases must be approved by two-thirds of voters.

“It has a far reaching impact across the state,” San Diego City Attorney Jan Goldsmith said of the ruling on Wednesday. “There was a belief there was a two-thirds requirement and this changes that. There’s no question it’s a seminal case.”

In addition to the Chargers proposal, which could increase local hotel taxes, the ruling could lower voter approval to a simple majority for school bond measures, sales tax hikes or other increases as long as such proposals begin with a citizen’s initiative.

The threat of a potential overturn by the state Supreme Court, however, makes it unlikely citizen’s groups will quickly start pursuing such initiatives.

In addition to the threat of an appeal, taxpayer advocacy groups may also petition the appellate court to reverse its decision or decertify the ruling, which would eliminate it as a legal precedent for other cases.

Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said he expects the ruling, which was issued last Friday, to be overturned.

He said Proposition 218 in 1996 and Proposition 13 in 1978 amended the state constitution to require a two-thirds vote for all tax increases where revenue would be spent on something specific.

Tax increases for general purposes require only a simple majority.

“The constitutional requirement for the two-thirds vote is there and we think it’s immutable,” said Coupal, criticizing the appellate court for exempting citizen’s initiatives. “The argument that the people can do something that a legislative body cannot is a little troublesome.”

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