Monday, February 20, 2017
Flush this attempt to hike taxes down the drain
Feb. 9, 2017
Updated Feb. 12, 2017 10:29 a.m.
By ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER EDITORIAL BOARD
Rainwater spills over a clogged storm drain Tuesday, Jan 5, 2016, in San Leandro, Calif.AP PHOTO/BEN MARGOT
California voters have said emphatically, and repeatedly, that they want to vote on tax increases, but some lawmakers just don’t want to hear it.
A new bill by state Sen. Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, could lead to significantly higher property tax bills without voter approval. Senate Bill 231 would accomplish this by changing the legal definition of “sewer service” to include stormwater, allowing local governments to charge property owners for the construction and operation of stormwater management projects.
Under Proposition 218, passed by voters in 1996, citizens have the right to vote on taxes, fees and assessments, with three exceptions: trash, water and sewer service.
A 2002 state appeals court ruling said stormwater was not included in these exceptions. Consequently, taxes, fees and assessments for stormwater projects must be approved by two-thirds of voters.
Sen. Hertzberg thinks the court got it wrong, so SB231 would simply redefine “sewer” and “sewer service” to include stormwater and storm drains.
The cost could be considerable. Under federal and state law, state regulators require cities in California to comply with a special permit to discharge stormwater through storm drain systems. The MS4 permit, as it’s known, mandates stormwater capture and the reduction of pollutants.
A California Supreme Court ruling last year indicated that parts of this permit may be a state mandate, meaning the state would have to pay for it, unless local agencies have the means to pay for it themselves.
By changing the definition of “sewer,” Hertzberg’s bill would give them the means: higher taxes with no need for voter approval.
The cost of stormwater permit compliance for cities in L.A. County alone has been estimated at $20 billion. Property tax bills could rise by hundreds or thousands of dollars to pay for it.
This is Hertzberg’s second attempt to pass a bill redefining “sewer” to get around the requirements of Proposition 218. Last August, SB1298 was on the verge of passing when it was derailed by a surge of opposition from taxpayers and many local government officials.
It doesn’t smell any better now. Californians have the right to vote on taxes. There should be no confusion about the meaning of that.