California tax addicts set sights on property
By U-T San Diego Editorial Board

.April 3, 2014

A common refrain in California is that it’s awfully difficult to raise taxes because of Proposition 13 and other laws. But the reality is these obstacles have often been overcome. That’s why we have among the nation’s highest income, sales and gasoline taxes.

Because of Proposition 13’s limits on how much assessments can increase from year to year, California is in the middle of the pack nationally when it comes to property taxes. But now state Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, is backing SB 1021, which would change the rules under which school districts can impose higher parcel taxes if two-thirds of local voters give their approval. Because of a dubious legal finding, the measure only requires majority approval by the Legislature, not the two-thirds approval required for many tax measures.

The key to the complex bill is that it would allow parcel tax rates to vary by category and size of property, instead of being standardized — long the California norm. The measure gives school bureaucrats some discretionary authority to determine how parcels are categorized and thus what their taxes would be; for example, adjacent properties owned by the same party could be grouped in the same category even if one is developed and one isn’t. This is a recipe for chaos.

SB 1021 is also an invitation to discriminatory treatment, in which those without property vote to sock it to certain types of landowners. But as bad as this legislation appears, it looks even worse when one considers the larger picture of taxes and the warped traditions that govern California’s schools.

Remember, it was less than two years ago that state voters were persuaded to impose higher sales taxes on everyone and higher income taxes on the wealthy with the promise that additional revenue would go to beef up school programs.

Instead, as critics predicted, revenue generated by Proposition 30 appears to have gone mostly toward compensation for teachers, whose unions are the most powerful forces in state politics.

Now these unions are lining up behind another revenue grab — one that will be marketed with the same assurances that “it’s all about the kids.”

Don’t believe it. The way school districts operate in California all but guarantees the money will go to employee compensation. Teachers typically get raises in 15 of their first 20 years on the job simply by showing up. They can also spike their pay by doing additional academic courses — and the classes don’t even have to be in the field they teach. There is no evidence of any substance that this makes them better teachers, but their pay goes up anyway.

Meanwhile, a 1971 state law requiring that student performance be a factor in evaluations of teachers — and thus implicitly a factor in how much they are paid — is simply ignored.

This status quo benefits teachers — not the public, and certainly not students. Until it is reformed, new taxes should not be added to funnel more money to schools — whether they’re bureaucratic nightmares like Sen. Wolk’s parcel tax or much simpler proposals.

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