Voting just three days before the 30th anniversary of the passage of Proposition 13, the landmark Jarvis-Gann initiative that cut property taxes and triggered a tax revolt across the country, voters in the primary election approved dozens of tax increases in local communities around the state.
By my count from semi-official election results available the day after the election, they passed 26 of 32 proposals to issue school and community college bonds; each of these measures, which raise local property taxes to repay the bonds, required a super-majority (55 percent) vote for passage. They approved 13 of 24 proposals to create or raise local per parcel property taxes to pay for a variety of services, including schools, libraries, parks, and law enforcement; parcel taxes can be passed only with a two-thirds vote. They approved tax increases not just in the liberal Bay Area but also in the Central Valley and Orange County. Overall, they passed 49 of the 75 tax-increase measures on local ballots around the state. And in many of the cases where the measures failed, it was with a majority that fell short of the required 55 percent or two-thirds requirement.
The result flies in the face of several different kinds of conventional wisdom. Turnout for the primary appears to have been the lowest in the state’s history, about 22 percent of registered voters. Since it’s generally assumed that low-turnout elections are dominated by older, better educated, affluent, and more conservative voters, the dismal turnout should have spelled death for many of the bond and tax measures. This time it didn’t. It’s also assumed that the combination of falling home values, rising gasoline prices, and a softening job market makes voters reluctant to open their pocketbooks to pay for public services. In the primary election, at least, that maxim didn’t hold.
Why? It will take some good political scientists armed with regression analyses to know for certain, but I have a couple of hunches.
The first is what might be called California’s residual electorate, the one that dutifully turns up at the polls, no matter how desultory the contests at stake, may still skew old, affluent, and educated, but it’s less conservative than it once was, especially along the coast.
The second hunch is that the political consultants who run school bond campaigns have increasingly mastered the techniques of targeted recruitment and turnout of pro-bond voters, especially parents of school children. When they can run a school bond in an otherwise low-turnout election, they are not just making the case for the bond measure, they are picking the electorate too.
Mark Paul, senior scholar at the New America Foundation, was formerly deputy treasurer of California and deputy editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee. This article was originally published in New America Voices, and is republished with their permission.