This time, California may raise taxes

An initiative would make it easier to pass school bonds, which may leadto tax hikes.

In a further sign of how this era of prosperity is changing political values, California is warming up to the idea of making it easier to raise property taxes.

If this changing sentiment holds, it would mark a remarkable shift for the state that launched a tax revolt 20 years ago that fundamentally altered the national political landscape.

At issue is an initiative that has qualified for the March 2000 ballot that asks voters to make it easier to pass local school and college bonds. It would replace the current requirement that any bond receive two-thirds support to a simple majority.

The result would be a significant increase in the number of bonds that would pass local muster and a hike in local taxes to repay those bonds, which are in effect long-term loans.

"This, in our view, could lead to a dramatic increase in property taxes and much of the benefits of Proposition 13 could be lost. It's our No. 1 issue," says Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

A similar attempt to ease the purse strings on education bonds went down in flames in 1993 - but times have changed.

Opinion polls have shown the March 2000 initiative strongly favored to win. A recent survey by The Field Poll found 59 percent supporting the measure and 36 percent in opposition.

While it is still early in the political season, that level of support demonstrates in and of itself a shift in public mood, says Mark DiCamillo of the Field organization.

"This time around, education is the No. 1 issue in the state, and it's a time of economic prosperity," says Mr. DiCamillo, explaining the ballot initiative's early support.

The ascent of public education as an issue of public concern as well as a critical resource for the state's economic well-being changes the equation of the looming battle, according to most political analysts.

The education establishment as well as the business community are already vigorously raising funds for the campaign and expect to spend as much as $20 million promoting the initiative.

Priority shift

A shift here would fit a national pattern whereby lower taxes have slipped as a priority, particularly when weighed against other public-policy objectives.

The shift is evident in the nation's capital, where Republicans lost their bid for a significant tax cut this year and ended this budget season with a small and largely symbolic cut in government spending.

This is not to say the public is any less stingy and skeptical when it comes to government programs, however. For instance, Washington State voters earlier this month overwhelmingly passed a $1 billion annual cut in car taxes as well as a requirement that all new taxes and fee increases be approved by voters before becoming law.

Tech support

Still, voters seem increasingly willing to fund programs they support. In California, that means education.

The California Teachers Association and a range of business organizations are backing the measure. TechNet, representing many of Silicon Valley's major technology firms, publicly endorsed the initiative last week, noting that better schools are "deeply in the self-interest of the tech community."

"Education and a well educated California is one of our top, top priorities," says Kathy Fairbanks of the California Chamber of Commerce, which is also supporting the measure.

Public sentiment on education bonds has already been changing, with more of them passing muster at the polls even with the current two-thirds requirement. But according to the Howard Jarvis association, virtually all school bonds that came before voters in recent years would pass under a simple majority requirement.

Where the money goes

Bonds generally are used to improve the infrastructure of a school, not to fund ongoing administrative and operating expenses.

While many in the business community are critical of the way schools are run, the need for bond funds to refurbish the state's deteriorating school and college buildings is more widely accepted.

One part of the initiative that advocates will make a pronounced part of their campaign is the requirement of a stringent audit to be sure approved bond funds are spent as promised.

The general pattern in California of ballot initiatives is that most fail, meaning it is easier to defeat an initiative than to pass one. Also, public opinion generally narrows as voting day approaches.

Given both those factors, as well as Californians' continuing feeling that taxes generally are too high in this state, most analysts expect a close and contentious campaign.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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