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Commonplace Miracles of Local Democracy

Charles Dickens’ classic novel A Tale of Two Cities begins, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." This description has deep meaning --- not only for Dickens’ characters, whose lives were torn apart by the excesses of the French Revolution, but also for many of us whose parents told us about life during the Great Depression and World War II. It conveys that often in the midst of real deprivation and need, you can find acts of mercy, innovation or community building that not only make the condition bearable but even exceptional.

The economic crisis of the past few months brings this quote to mind as we are bombarded daily with more bad news. Anxiety and fear seem to have gripped our nation and others around the world as the once unthinkable regularly becomes the commonplace. Private institutions previously considered permanent fixtures have disappeared overnight as tales of private exploitation that followed unfortunate public deregulation fill the newspapers, electronic media and daily mail.

For many California voters and our state government, the economic crisis we are currently facing has been a major concern for more than a year. As state revenues have plunged and the ability of our state leaders to come together has been tested and found wanting, voters have developed a profound distrust for their public leaders and institutions at the state level. Virtually every week we hear of yet another new public opinion survey that reflects deepening public pessimism about the state and national governments.

Voters Choose to Invest Locally

At the same time that public opinion on state and federal leaders is tanking, voters are looking to their communities and local leaders for solutions and opportunities to control their own destinies. They are doing this by overwhelmingly reinvesting in their local governments, local infrastructure and local services by approving ballot measures that authorize tax increases and bond issues for public infrastructure. A review of the results of the most recent election illustrates this point.

Consider these facts that demonstrate the high level of public support for many local tax and bond proposals:

  • The Nov. 4, 2008, ballot included 233 local revenue measures to raise taxes/fees or issue bonds (see Fig. 1). An impres sive 69 percent of majority-vote general tax measures were approved (see Fig. 2). Special tax measures requiring a two-thirds vote still succeeded 54 percent of the time.
  • The results of school tax and bond measures were particularly strong. Ninety-two percent of the school bond measures requiring a 55 percent vote passed, and 79 percent of the school tax and bond measures requiring a two-thirds vote passed (see Fig. 3).
  • Across almost every category, approval rates of local revenue measures were as high as or higher than those of similar measures in 2001.

Here are some of the preliminary details that demonstrate a continuing opportunity at the local level to engage citizens in a positive way with their most important public institutions.

Other Important Election Results

The notable outcomes of the November 2008 election include:

General Purpose Sales Tax Measures. The success rate for majority-vote general purpose add-on sales taxes was better than the rate of success for similar measures in 2001. Fifteen of the 19 measures (79 percent) passed. In comparison, between June 2002 and June 2008, only 42 of 75 (56 percent) similar sales tax measures passed (see Fig. 4). In the November 2008 election, all 19 of these measures were in cities.

Specific Purpose Sales Taxes. Seven of 13 (54 percent) special purpose sales tax measures put before the voters passed. Although all but one received more than 55 percent of the "yes" votes, special taxes require two-thirds voter approval. Two of the passing measures extended previously enacted countywide one-half percent sales taxes for transportation. Of the 11 pro pos als to increase special sales taxes, five (45 percent) passed, a higher success rate than for similar measures between June 2002 and June 2008 (see Fig. 5).

Utility User’s Tax (UUT) Measures. There were 23 measures to increase or expand UUTs. All 14 of the measures that expanded the base of the tax on telecom munications but reduced or maintained the rate passed (see Fig. 6). Only a third of the measures to impose a new tax or increase the tax rate passed. In one city, the voters turned down a citizen referendum proposal to repeal the UUT.

Transient Occupancy Taxes (TOT). Voters in 11 cities and one county voted on increasing their TOT. Seven of the 12 measures passed (58 percent). In comparison, between June 2002 and June 2008, voters approved such increases 67 percent of the time.

Non-School General Obligation Bonds. Voters passed 100 percent of the eight general obligation bond proposals put before them by cities, counties and special districts. These all required a two-thirds vote, and some passed with approval rates of more than 80 percent. This approval rate eclipses the June 2002-June 2008 approval rate of just 29 percent.

Greater Trust for Local Government

While other results on local taxes and bonds vary, the overwhelming message from this recent election is that voters believe most in government they can see and hold accountable. They believe most in government that is run by their neighbors --- the same people they see in the grocery store, at the farmers market and on the street. They trust government that involves them in setting priorities and then checks back with them about community needs.

City and other local officials should neither become smug about these results nor overlook their significance. As every elected and appointed official knows, public servants have a compact with the citizens. At the community level that compact is more tangible and easier to understand, but like the one voters have with their state and federal officials, it is based on trust and accountability.

Voters expect leaders to lead and to engage them in a dialogue --- at the council meeting, on the street corner and at the ballot box --- about the direction of their community. Most of all, however, voters want leaders to lead: to explain why tough choices are necessary and ask for their support from time to time for major tax and investment decisions.

In a sense, cities and other local governments are the keepers of our democratic traditions. They help keep our ideals about the role of government in our lives fresh, tangible and alive. If the results of this recent election are any indication, local elected and appointed officials who keep this in the forefront of their minds will find success with their major initiatives even in a time of national and state crisis. At the end of the day, citizens believe in their local governmental institutions and are ready to engage in an authentic debate about community priorities --- and to tax themselves more to achieve key goals.

Author’s Note: Many thanks to Michael Coleman, fiscal consultant to the League, who compiled these local revenue measure election results. His full report is online at www.CaliforniaCityFinance.com.