Which California cities will be Germany or Greece under Prop 31?

Sept. 6, 2012

By Wayne Lusvardi

Carles B. Warren, a real estate economist and appraiser in Pleasant Hill, California, asks: “In the Los Angeles region, who will be Greece and who Germany” if California voters approve Proposition 31 on the November ballot?

Warren once was a visiting professor at Istanbul Technical University in Turkey. He was referring to the European Union, where solvent Germany has been bailing out the overspending of Greece, Italy and other countries.  After more than a dozen years of regionalized money and shared taxes, the European Union is coming apart. Many countries are going bankrupt.

Something similar would eventually happen in California under Prop. 31, where the regionalization of taxes would just postpone the inevitable.

Prop. 31 is a Coercive Tax-Sharing Scheme

Prop. 31 is apparently intended for large public works projects such as the California Bullet Train.  Under Prop. 31, taxes could be pooled regionally to help fund large public works projects.  Under Prop. 31, environmental regulations and clearances could be drastically reduced or circumvented to overcome delays, lawsuits, and obstructionism.  But Prop. 31 could also be used for smaller local projects or the bailouts of insolvent cities or school districts.

Under the tax-sharing provisions of Prop. 31, suburbs could be coerced to “voluntarily” share a portion of their state road, school, and vehicle license tag revenues or forfeit them.  Unelected regional committees called Strategic Area Plans could divert the shared or forfeited taxes to plug budget and pension deficits in big cities and big school districts.

SAP committees would add an extra layer of government and its members would not be elected. They would not be authorized to raise new taxes. But they could shake down wealthy suburbs to pay for financially strapped cities and school districts.  And they could pledge confiscated tax revenues to pay for bond issues for public projects.

City councils, county boards of supervisors, and school districts mostly in the suburbs would lose home rule over zoning, transportation, housing, and even a portion of their property and income taxes for public schools. Unelected committees would determine spending priorities and how much money would be spent on affordable housing and where.

Additionally, such super committees could recapture a portion of property and income taxes from wealthy school districts that approved supplemental school parcel taxes and divert them to struggling school districts. A prime example would be wealthy school districts in Carlsbad or La Jolla in San Diego County sharing their property taxes with the Poway Unified School District and its $1 billion deferred interest on “capital appreciation bonds.”

Mostly wealthy school districts in Northern California that approved school parcel taxes could likely have an offsetting share of their property and income taxes diverted to “poor” school districts in Southern California.  Northern Californians that don’t like their water flowing to Southern California would end up having their share of school taxes flow south, too.

The above is not far-fetched speculation and hysteria. Former State Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg is the co-chairperson of California Forward, the sponsor of Prop. 31. In 2002, Hertzberg spearheaded a study, “The New California Dream: Regional Solutions for 21st Century Challenges,” proposing the financial regionalization of local governments by way of a voter-approved constitutional amendment.  Prop. 31 is the culmination of what that report inferred was Hertzberg’s “dream.”

Diluted Government and Voting

As Warren puts it, Prop. 31 would result in the “dilution of representative government, the dilution of voter power, decisions made regionally rather than locally, and the redistribution of tax revenue beyond what is already built into the system.”

Why? “Because some cities and school districts, usually in older central areas, can’t control spending, pensions being a salient example. Prop. 31 is basically a covert bailout initiative.”

Warren points out that this problem has been around for decades.  He says, “Even before President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty in the 1960’s, government has attempted to solve problems in central cities without success, but at great expense.  The literature promoting regional government goes back at least to the 1950s. Greater expense is unlikely to yield greater success. In fact history suggests that top-down decision making is more likely to spread high priced failure.”

Numbers Transposed: Prop. 31 is Prop. 13 in Reverse

Proposition 13, the 1978 tax limitation initiative, has served as a circuit breaker against both monetary inflation and falling property values. Warren points out that, under Prop. 13, property tax revenues have grown faster than inflation.  Moreover, since the 2008 Mortgage Market Meltdown and Bank Panic, property tax revenue has fallen more slowly than property values.

But Prop. 31 would be Prop. 13 in reverse, both numerically and fiscally.  This is because Prop. 31 would circumvent the supermajority vote requirements of Prop. 13 by tapping taxes from other cities without any requirement for voter approval.  No new taxes would be raised. Suburbs would just have a share of their existing taxes siphoned elsewhere.

Suppose Santa Monica Thinks It Will Be Switzerland

Like Prop. 31, the European Union involves fiscal regionalization, while leaving existing political boundaries and governments in place.

According to Warren, it is the opinion of the Economist magazine that the weakness of the European Union has been the enforcement of fiscal discipline on the Southern and other high-spending governments.  That is because fiscal regionalization — tax sharing — creates what is called the “free rider” problem, where weaker economies have no incentive to grow and only want to live off the wealthier economies.

The way Warren puts it: “Voila! — Greece.” In the pre-European Union era, the Drachma, Greece’s currency, had higher interest rates than the German currency, the Deutsche mark, to capitalize currency depreciation. The same things happened with Italy and, to an extent, France.  Locking them all together without enforceable means of controlling their taxation and spending only worked in good economic times, however. We’re now seeing the consequences.

Warren adds: “To an extent our federate system shares the same problem.  State by state and region-by-region, some gain and some lose by participating in the American Union. That is not what the European Union said it intended, but it’s what it’s getting.”

California cities, counties and school districts would be subject under Prop. 31 to the same predations and free riding as those in the European Union.

Some cities might think they can remain neutral like Switzerland, which is not part of the European Union. But under Prop. 31, a city such as Santa Monica or San Francisco could opt out of regionalized “Strategic Area Plans,” but at a price. They would likely have to forfeit a share of their road revenues.  Or wealthy school districts with supplemental school parcel taxes might have to forfeit an offsetting share of their school property taxes.

This is how revenue sharing of H.U.D. Community Development Block Grant funds works now in California.  Those cities that do not meet their affordable housing quotas have their share of Block Grant funds diverted to less wealthy areas. The mechanism the state uses to confiscate such funds is the Housing Element of a city’s General Plan.

So there would be no escaping the confiscatory policies of Prop. 31 by voluntarily opting out of a Strategic Area Plan. There would be no equivalent to a neutral Switzerland in the European Union under Prop. 31.

Once again, which California cities will be Greece and which Germany under Prop. 31?

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