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AP Enterprise: Local tax votes do well nationwide

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Forget all the talk about voters being fed up with high taxes: In hundreds of cities and counties across the country, they are raising them.

An Associated Press review of local election results found they boosted taxes to help pay for schools, public safety and other services they believe are essential to their communities.

In an election year dominated by angry anti-government and anti-tax rhetoric, the results may seem counterintuitive. Throughout the country, raucous tea party rallies have been blanketed with signs reading “Taxed Enough Already,” “Cut Taxes, Cut Government” and “We Make, They Take--No Socialism.”

But with states facing huge budget deficits, reduced aid to communities is leaving them with a difficult choice: Dig deeper into their own pockets or cut the services that most impact their lives.

“We’re talking about funding services that are more tangible to voters, and what happens in the elections has a lot more to do with local realities than it does with anything happening on the national level,” said Michael Coleman, fiscal policy adviser to the League of California Cities.

No single entity tracks local revenue measures at a national level, and the vast majority of states do not have a centralized public database of city and county election results.

In addition, some states allow bonds and tax increases only on the general election ballot, meaning voters must wait until this Tuesday to decide many additional measures.

The AP was able to provide a snapshot of how voters in several states have been embracing tax increases at the local level. The analysis looked at 39 states, representing a cross-section of the country.

The review found 2,387 revenue measures in 22 states where they appeared on local primary and special-election ballots this year. Voters in 19 states — or 86 percent of those holding such elections — passed 50 percent or more of the local tax initiatives that came before them.

The types of taxes run the gamut. School district budgets in New York. Utility rate hikes in California. Sales tax increases in North Carolina. School construction bonds in Nebraska.

In many states, the pro-tax vote was overwhelming. Ohio voters approved 72 percent of 448 local tax measures. In Louisiana, voters passed 83 percent of 77 local tax questions. Voters in recession-ravaged and fiscally conservative Arizona approved 66 percent of the 30 local tax measures.

Kansas, Nebraska and Washington were among other states with high percentages of local tax measures passing.

Not every state has been so accommodating.

In New Jersey, where a cost-cutting governor campaigned against local tax measures, voters in April rejected 59 percent of 537 revenue-generating school budget proposals. It was the first time in 34 years that a majority of the state’s school budget proposals were defeated.

In Illinois and Massachusetts, roughly 60 percent of local measures failed.

Still, those states appear to be in the minority — a trend tea party leaders say is not all that surprising.

“I don’t think this is inconsistent with the anger at out-of-control taxes at the state and national levels,” said Mark Meckler, of Nevada City, Calif., the co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, one of the nation’s largest tea party groups.

“The best government is local government,” he said.

In many communities, the reality is that state budget deficits have forced county and city governments to shoulder the burden of maintaining critical services, said Jackie Byers, director of research and outreach for the National Association of Counties in Washington, D.C.

The association surveyed 104 counties in 33 states in June and found that 64 percent of them anticipated a revenue shortfall at the beginning of their current fiscal year, largely due to declining sales tax and property tax receipts.

“They have necessary services they’re mandated to perform, and so they have tough decisions about whether to lay off more people or to raise taxes,” Byers said.

In California, which faced a $19 billion deficit this year, voters in the June 8 primary passed 73 percent of the 60 local revenue measures on the ballot, about half of which were school-funding proposals.

Even measures that required two-thirds majorities fared well: Of the 21 school parcel taxes that came up for a vote from January through the primary, 16 passed. Those taxes, which are levied on individual parcels, ranged from $32 to $311 per property.

What’s more, Californians appeared more willing to impose taxes and fees on themselves this year than they have been in times of greater economic stability, even when the measures aren’t tied to school funding.

Of the non-school local tax measures on the state’s June 8 ballot, 85 percent passed — a 20-point increase from the average approval rate over the previous nine years, according to CaliforniaCityFinance.com, a website maintained for the League of California Cities.

One of those measures, in the northern Central Valley farming town of Winters, will double the tax on utilities from 4.75 percent to 9.5 percent.

The extra revenue will allow the city, about 30 miles west of the state capital, to hire an additional police officer and continue operating its popular community center and swimming pool, city manager John Donlevy said.

“When we thought about putting this to a vote, the con was it’s a real tough economy for us to be raising our taxes,” he said. “But on the flip side, we need to support the city because it’s really where all of our services come from. It’s about taking care of where you live.”

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