The California Supreme Court Makes Local Democracy Even More Dysfunctional

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

The California Supreme Court just made local democracy in California even more dysfunctional. And that could end up being a very good thing.

You may have read about the case I’m talking about. The court declined to hear an appeal of a lower court decision that allowed a simple majority of voters, rather two thirds, to raise special taxes at the local level. This effectively reduces one of California’s many two-thirds requirements.

This decision, or really non-decision, has been portrayed as being about taxes; the switch to a majority vote is described as good for tax-raisers, and bad for taxpayers. But, unfortunately, its implications go beyond way beyond taxes. It weakens California’s already weak local democracy—and I say that as someone who would like to see local taxes go up.

The core problem is that the Supreme Court non-decision puts in place different rules for local tax measures, depending on who is the sponsor of the measure. The 2/3 rule remains in place for special tax measures—that is, taxes for a specific purpose—that are put on the ballot by the local government. In other words, it keeps things difficult for our local elected officials. But it makes it easier for rich people or interests to pass a tax—they only need a simple majority.

This is not the first time that the California Supreme Court has stood for the proposition that powerful interest groups and rich people should have more power to make tax policy than the officials we elect. Three years ago, the Supreme Court took the same anti-democratic position in a decision regarding a local marijuana tax.

This reinforces a central problem of local democracy in California: that developers and public employee unions have almost all the power. Now those entities, which are the most common sponsors of local measures, will find it easier to raise taxes than local officials. So when a city needs more revenues for a special purpose, local officials will end up asking those developers and unions to put measures on the ballot for them. 

This doesn’t just weaken city council members or county supervisors. It weakens all of us. City council members are elected by voters, and thus have an obligation to represent all of us. The unions, developers and other interests that the California Supreme Court just turned tax policy over to are under no such obligation.

In other words: the California Supreme Court took away your democratic power.

Here’s the good news in this bad news. The decision could lead to even more corruption and even more fiscal crises at the local level. And that could wake Californians up to the fact that they need to empower their local governments, and their local elected officials, with a new constitution.

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