REEDLEY – Although state-wide elections are more than a year away, the discussion over a ballot initiative that would change how localities can levy taxes and fees has made its way to Reedley.
During its regular meeting Tuesday, June 27, the Reedley City Council opted to table consideration of a letter opposing the state’s Taxpayer Protection and Government Accountability Act. According to city manager Nicole Zieba, the League of California Cities asked cities across the state to pass formal resolutions opposing the act due to concerns surrounding its potential impact on city services.
Zieba said that “the act itself has some great points to protect taxpayers,” but it also includes loopholes and “intense pitfalls” that could harm local governments and taxpayers in the long term.
The Taxpayer Protection and Government Accountability Act is an initiative sponsored by the California Business Roundtable that will appear on the state’s November 2024 ballot. The initiative proposes amending Article 13 of the California Constitution to alter the definition of a tax and require local ballot measures to include specific, detailed language about any proposed tax.
According to the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, a proponent of the initiative, the ballot measure would require that new tax proposals have “truthful descriptions,” that local special tax increases be approved by a two-thirds voter majority and that any new tax passed by the state legislature be approved by voters.
The initiative text states that “measures that were designed to control taxes, spending and accountability have been weakened and hamstrung by the legislature, government lawyers and the courts, making it necessary to pass yet another initiative to close loopholes and reverse hostile court decisions.”
Opponents of the initiative include the League of California Cities, a political group that advocates for more local control. Bismarck Obando, the league’s director of public affairs, said the initiative threatens local tax measures “that have already been approved by voters that allow a city to provide vital services to residents.”
The measure would not impact taxes and fees that went into effect by Jan. 1, 2022, but would require any taxes passed after that point to conform to the measure. This means that any new or increased tax put forward by a city in the two and a half years leading up to the November 2024 election could be in jeopardy and would need to be voted on again by residents.
“The measure also creates loopholes that could make it much more difficult for state and local regulators to issue fines and levies on corporations that violate environmental, health and public safety laws,” Obando said.
From a local standpoint in Reedley, Zieba said that the initiative is concerning because it opens up the city to unnecessary liabilities. For example, if the city were to raise swim lesson fees and someone felt those fees were unreasonable, they could sue the city for that. That would effectively make the local taxpayers “on the hook” for those lawsuits, Zieba said.
“As a city manager there is something that bothers me, and that is that it’s been put on the ballot by developers,” Zieba said. “When it’s developers and we’re talking about developer impact fees, it gets my spidey senses up. That’s why I dug into the language a little more specifically and saw how much it opens up the city’s liability.”
Cities across the state have also said the initiative could hinder their ability to adequately fund services like trash pickup, utilities, libraries, recreation and anything else they provide for residents. All new or increased fees that a city charges for those services, whether it’s for a T-ball league or a senior citizen field trip, would have to be approved by the voters, Zieba said.
While the city of Reedley is supportive of protecting taxpayers from frivolous fees, the extensive process the city would need to go through for each fee it charges would take extra time and money that the taxpayers are then paying for, because they fund city operations. Zieba said it would also be “extraordinarily expensive” for the city to go to a ballot for every fee imposition or increase as required by the initiative.
With so much time between now and the 2024 elections, the Reedley City Council suggested waiting and conducting more research before passing any opposition resolution. Zieba said the council and city are in support of protecting the taxpayer, and there is still time for the specific language of the initiative to be negotiated or changed before the election.
“My great hope would be that the initiative sponsors would be willing to negotiate some of the language that seems too broad and unspecific,” Zieba said. “If they’re unwilling to do that, my hope would be that our opposition or at least bringing it to public light would prompt the voter to take a really good look at the details of this initiative, because the devil is in the details.”