Taxes, Fees, Charges and Assessments: What Difference Does It Make?

TaxesWhat’s the difference between a tax and fee? There is no easy answer and the political class likes it that way. In fact, they would prefer that the public remain confused to the point of apathy.

The political class, of course, consists of elected officials, bureaucrats and their special interest allies who are to the Capitol what insider traders are to Wall Street. Working in lockstep, their approach to increasing the take from taxpayers was best outlined by Jean Baptiste Colbert, Minister of Finance under Louis XIV of France: The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing.

But taxpayers are not defenseless because Proposition 13 – later strengthened by Proposition 218, the Right to Vote on Taxes Act – provides effective weapons against an insatiable government ever in search of more revenue. These include voter approval requirements. At the state level, new or higher taxes require a two-thirds vote of each house and, at the local level, voter or property owner approval requirements allow those who have to pay a government exaction (no matter what it is called) an opportunity to say no.

However, to protect themselves, taxpayers must be knowledgeable, alert and ready to fearlessly protect and exercise their rights.

Therefore, while most taxpayers don’t have a law degree, here are some basics about the difference between a “tax” and a “fee.” There are very few legal limitations on “taxes.” About the only way a tax could be unconstitutional is if it impaired a fundamental right (a “poll” tax on the right to vote) or if it singled out some group for discriminatory purposes. But fees are different. A fee is a charge for something that confers a benefit to the fee-payer that is not available to those who do not pay the fee. A classic example is a charge for entering a state campground.

Until the passage of Proposition 26 in 2010, the Legislature could approve fees with a simple majority vote. But in 2011, the Legislature approved, with a simple majority, charging 850,000 rural homeowners an annual “fire fee” of $150. The “fee” was not accompanied by any additional benefit or service, clearly making it a tax requiring a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. This issue is currently being litigated by taxpayers, but it is a classic example of the dishonest ends to which tax raisers are willing to go to wring ever more money from taxpayers.

Moreover, the political class has a habit of pursuing taxes that are not apparent to the general public. Almost any tax on business fits into this category. As Howard Jarvis liked to say, businesses do not pay taxes, “we do.”

As part of Obamacare, the federal government imposed a tax scheme designed to stop employers from offering top quality health plans. Backers of the Affordable Care Act included a 40 percent tax on providers of what were derisively described as “Cadillac” plans. As these plans disappear, the uninformed will assume that it is their employer who is responsible, when, in fact, it is government.

Here, in California, a major hidden tax is cap-and-trade legislation, not approved with a two-thirds vote, that compels companies to buy carbon credits. Of course, these costs are passed on and drivers feel the impact every time they fill up with gasoline that costs, by the most conservative estimates, an additional 12 cents per gallon with more increases on the horizon. Unaware of the impact of cap-and-trade, many motorists may mistakenly assume that the high cost of gas is entirely due to the petroleum companies.

This is why taxpayers are closely watching a case just argued before the Sacramento appeals court, where opponents argue that cap-and-trade charges amount to an unconstitutional tax. The court is expected to render a decision within 90 days but, regardless of the outcome, the loser is likely to appeal to the California Supreme Court.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

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‘Public Servants’ or ‘Well-Paid Elite’?

MoneyOnce upon a time we called them “public servants.” Today, most taxpayers struggle to keep a straight face when this term is used to describe the well-paid, elite who govern us.

In a state where the median per capita income is just over $30,000, Gov. Brown, legislators and other state elected officials will celebrate the holidays with a 4 percent pay raise. The California Citizens Compensation Commission, whose members are appointed by the governor, decided the improved economy and healthy state budget justified the raise. California lawmakers, who were already the most generously paid in all 50 states, will now receive $104,115, earning them $14,774 more per year than the next highest. Of course, this does not count the additional $176 per day in “walking around money,” living expenses lawmakers receive for every day the Legislature is in session, amounting to an average of $34,000.

The governor, too, is now the highest paid at $190,100 — Pennsylvania’s governor is actually slated to make $723 more, but Gov. Tom Wolf does not accept the salary.

Do Californians pay their governor, the top executive of a state government responsible to nearly 40 million constituents, enough? The fact that there is never a shortage of candidates for this job is an indication that the pay is sufficient. So, the question arises, why do many government employees receive more than the governor?

At the local level, most cities have as their chief executive, a city manager. Of 479 cities – out a total of 482 – reporting to the state controller, 279 are paid more than the governor. Of these, 24 receive over $300,000 annually.

For some cities, paying their top administrator a high salary seems to be a matter of vanity. Council members, who approve generous compensation, will take the position that their city deserves a highly-paid manager, the same way some car buyers justify the purchase of a luxury vehicle. Just as the neighbors may be impressed by the new Mercedes, neighboring cities will be impressed with their city’s ability to overpay the help. This, of course, puts pressure on surrounding cities to keep up with the Joneses.

While some city hall insiders will argue that higher pay is justified by a larger population, there seems to be no actual correlation.

Escondido, California’s most generous city, has been compensating its manager $413,000 annually to serve a population of 151,000. In slightly larger Palmdale, the manager receives $138,000 to look after 160,000 residents. And then there is Garden Grove with a population of 177,000 where the city manager gets $89,000.

A few years ago, the city manager in Bell went to prison for illegally compensating himself $800,000 per year. However, although it may not be illegal, the city of Vernon stands out as a candidate for the most profligate in the state. Its top executive is paid more than $328,000. The city’s population is only 210, which means that each resident is responsible for over $1,560 to compensate the manager. (The rumor that Vernon’s top executive insists on being called “Your Majesty” could not be verified.) Another small city, Gustine in Merced County, with a population of 5,482 gets the award for most frugal. It pays its city manager $909 annually.

While there are other areas of government employee compensation that beg examination, the range of pay for city managers seems to be the most irrational.

Still, none of these local administrators is close to the state’s top salary of $3.35 million. But since the program generates the revenue to pay UCLA football coach Jim Mora, he is more likely to be criticized for his record more than his salary.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

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What would California be like as an independent nation?

calexitCalifornia breaking off into the ocean as a result of the “Big One” is science fiction fantasy to Hollywood, credible urban legend to citizens of Los Angeles and San Francisco and, perhaps, the secret hope of many Americans residing on the other side of the Sierras. However, backers of a just filed initiative, “Calexit: The California Independence Plebiscite of 2019,” want a different sort of California breakaway. They envision the state as a “free, sovereign and independent country.” Although the effort began several years ago, secessionists have been bolstered by those suffering Trump Derangement Syndrome – a condition where “alt-left” adherents lose their minds over the thought of a Trump presidency.

A spokesman for the movement cites California’s different culture, different set of priorities and different plans for the future as a justification for breaking away from the rest of the country.

While efforts to establish California as a separate country may be a farfetched idea – the issue of state secession was settled in the small town of Appomattox, Virginia when General Lee surrendered to General Grant, 1865 – it is an interesting mental exercise. What would California be like as an independent nation? Who would govern and what would be the impact on taxpayers? And if California could establish independence, would the break-up end there? Drive anywhere in the Sierra foothills or north of Sacramento and “State of Jefferson” signs are ubiquitous.

If California were an independent country, the precedent would be set for further fracturing, with other regions, where dissatisfaction with the established order is intense, seeking to break away.

Today, California’s political direction is dictated by the upper income elites living in coastal enclaves and Hollywood. Here, the Starbucks generation is consumed with issues like climate change and bathroom access and they are not shy about telling others how to live. This explains why Sacramento seems to be constantly making war on those not part of the coastal, protected class. But travel just 25 miles from the coast and you’ll find a different world. Here, people are concerned about finding a job or keeping the job they have.

After speaking to a group of politically active Californians a few years ago, pollster Scott Rasmussen responded to a question about the size of government saying, the average person does not walk down the street thinking about limited government, they are thinking about how they are going to support their families.

Outside of Malibu, Santa Barbara and the Bay Area, most people are still searching for the answer to the question of how to feed, shelter and clothe their families. If given the option of breaking away from the Prius driving, chardonnay sipping, kale chip nibbling elite, they would likely vote yes.

California will not become an independent nation, but the divide between the coastal and inland areas is real and we are about to experience another clash of these cultures played out on the Sacramento stage.

A special session on transportation, called by Gov. Brown last year, has just concluded without lawmakers imposing new taxes. But when the new Legislature convenes, one with even more pro-tax members elected in November, the top priority will be a significant increase in the gas tax and other auto-related charges. Once again, inland residents who need their cars for work will find themselves pitted against the “Let them drive Teslas” coastal elite.

If the price of fuel heads even higher than it is now, we are bound to see a multitude of working class Californians filling their tanks one last time as they leave the state for a foreign land called America.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

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Local Governments Rigging Elections — Again

Voting boothWith all the state and local taxes on the November ballot, one would think that government at all levels in California was starved for revenue. But even a cursory review of the Golden State’s “tax machine” reveals that the tax burden is already too heavy for many to bear. California has the highest income rate in America (likely to be extended for another 12 years) and the highest state sales tax rate. And despite Prop. 13, our per capita property tax collections ranks no lower than 14th in the nation.

In the June primary, voters already passed 29 out of 40 local tax increases. But those taxes register as barely a blip compared to the earthquake confronting voters in less than three weeks. According to the California Taxpayers Association, there are 228 local tax measures representing a cumulative tax increase of more than $3 billion per year, along with 193 bonds (more than $30 billion’s worth) that would dramatically increase annual property taxes.

After the June primary, this column observed that the high rate of passage reflected not so much a love for higher taxes as it did the fact that the tax raisers have become experts at gaming the system to pass tax and bond measures. Highly paid political consultants tell local officials not to publicize tax elections to the entire community, but to target only their supporters. This means running stealth elections, communicating (in the case of school bonds) with only administrators and construction firms who are always more than willing to finance political campaigns and, of course, public employee unions who never met a tax they didn’t like.

The strategies that the pro-taxers employ to extract money from an unsuspecting citizenry are endless. For example, many school boards, cities and counties do all they can to time elections so that potential opponents have inadequate time to mobilize. The ultimate goal is to prevent an opposition argument from even appearing in the ballot pamphlet. On countless occasions, taxpayer advocates have been blindsided by proposed tax increases because they were only afforded a few precious days to submit an argument. And when it is too late, there are few legal remedies.

The ultimate insult to taxpayers, of course, is when local governments use public dollars to engage in political advocacy to influence an election. In theory, it is illegal for officials to use public resources (including public funds) to urge a vote for or against a political issue. But, in practice, it happens all the time. Two weeks ago, both the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and the Central Coast Taxpayers Association filed a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission alleging campaign reporting violations of the Political Reform Act by the County of San Luis Obispo, the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments (SLOCOG) and the Yes on Measure J Committee, a group pushing a local transportation tax. These government entities have spent nearly a quarter of a million taxpayer dollars on promotional materials and government employee and contractor compensation supporting Measure J.

As the November election draws near, the complaints about government interference in elections have ramped up dramatically. In Sacramento, the Sacramento City Unified School District used “robocalls” to contact thousands of parents with “important information” about the benefits of a parcel tax as well as statewide Proposition 55. According to theSacramento Bee, the district sent the scripted messages recorded by five district trustees through its automated telephone message distribution system, explaining how the two tax measures would raise money for school programs and services that otherwise could be slashed. (This despite the fact that education spending in California has exploded since 2010).

Such communications are neither information nor balanced. They are always one-sided puff pieces designed solely to extract yes votes from uninformed voters.

California voters need to be alert to the lies, distortions and illegal expenditures of taxpayer dollars when considering any request for higher taxes. Yes, government services require public dollars. But before voting yes on any tax increase, ask yourself why is it that other states have markedly better public services without the high price tag.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

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Making It Harder for Politicians to Lie to Their Constituents

legislatureIt was Will Rogers who said, “If you ever injected truth into politics you have no politics.” If the renowned satirist were with us today, he would not be shocked by the dishonesty of the Sacramento political class, even if the rest of us find it offensive.

Many of our current class of politicians attempt to present themselves as standing for the interests of average folks. They pay lip service to low and moderate income Californians, while California continues to have the highest sales and gas taxes in the nation. They claim to be supporters of property ownership, then attack Proposition 13 and then proceed to make it easier for government to take private property through eminent domain.

For those trying to sort out who is actually representing average taxpayers and who, instead, is doing the bidding of powerful special interests, the just released Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association Legislative Report Card will help. The Report Card holds lawmakers accountable by documenting how lawmakers have voted on issues important to taxpayers.

Of the 120 members of the Legislature, 76 received a grade of “F” while only 27 earned an “A” grade.

In the legislative session that ended last month, Gov. Brown signed over 800 bills. These bills create thousands of pages of new laws, spanning dozens of code sections. The HJTA Legislative Report Card also draws attention to the best and worst of these bills. For example, Assembly Bill 2153 (Cristina Garcia) that imposes a new tax on car batteries. It may seem like a small matter to some, but it represents another step by Sacramento to make personal transportation more expensive for average folks.

The Report Card also spotlights lawmakers who support legislation that helps taxpayers. Los Angeles Assemblyman Matt Dababneh received a higher grade due to his carrying an HJTA-sponsored bill, AB1891. This new law allows seniors and those with disabilities to permanently opt out of paying education parcel taxes if they fill out a required form one time, which is sent to their residence.

Votes on 22 bills were used to score lawmakers. These reflect a range of policy issues including new tax and regulatory burdens, and attacks on the initiative process that would make it more difficult for taxpayers to exercise their right to place measures, like Proposition 13, on the ballot.

The Report Card also documents a troubling trend. Some lawmakers, who at one time were supportive of taxpayers’ interests, seem to have shifted their allegiance and now routinely vote for taxes, bonds, and other measures that increase the burden on average Californians. A record number of these legislators received “C” and “D” grades this year. Taxpayers can only hope that this was due to election year politics and not the beginning of a trend.

Seven lawmakers deserve credit and thanks for a perfect score. Members of the Assembly receiving 100% are: Assembly Republican Leader Chad Mayes, Shannon Grove, Jay Obernolte, Matt Harper and Don Wagner. They were joined on the Senate side by Ted Gaines and Jim Nielsen.

To view the 2016 Legislative Report Card, and find which representatives are proud of their grades, and which would rather they stay hidden, please go to where it can be found under “Hot Topics.”

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

How To Ensure You’re Not Over-Charged on Property Taxes

property taxAs any reader of this column knows, voters will be confronted come election day with billions and billions of new tax hikes and bond measures (which, of course, result in their own tax hikes). But let’s not forget that there is another reason for taxpayer to experience a heightened sense of anxiety over the next few weeks.

For many the real scare this time of year is not the monsters at our doors on Halloween but the property tax bill in the mail box. But, while the “tax and spend” lobby increases its influence in Sacramento, homeowners have still been able to count on Proposition 13 for some degree of protection. Because Proposition 13 limits increases in a property’s assessed value to two percent annually, most property owners have a good idea what their tax bill will be even before opening the envelope. But homeowners still need to examine carefully their property tax bill because mistakes can happen.

Taxpayers should understand the various charges and make certain that they are not being assessed for more than they are legally obligated to pay. The best way to check a tax bill is to have your previous year’s bill handy for reference.

Checking the bill is especially important for those who bought their homes a few years ago at the height of the market. If your home value is actually lower than the assessed value shown on the tax bill, you should consider applying for a reduction in taxes. (Sometimes called a “Prop. 8 reduction”).

For most California counties, the property tax bill will show three categories of charges. They are the General Tax Levy, Voted Indebtedness and Direct Assessments.

General Tax Levy

The General Tax Levy is what most people think of when talking about property taxes. It is based on the assessed value of land, improvements and fixtures. This charge usually makes up the largest part of the tax bill and it is the amount that is limited by Proposition 13.

Proposition 13 passed overwhelmingly by voters in 1978 and it established a statewide uniform tax rate of one percent of assessed value at the time of purchase and limited annual increases in assessed value to no more than two percent. From a practical standpoint, this means that once the base year value of your property is established the General Tax Levy cannot be increased more than two percent each year. This allows all property owners to predict their property tax bills into the future and budget accordingly.

The best way to check to make sure that your current General Levy of Assessment is correct is to compare it with the previous year’s bill. The increase should be no more than two percent unless there have been improvements to the property like adding a room to a house or if you previously received a Prop. 8 “reduction in value.” This bears repeating: Because the real estate market in many parts of California is recovering many homeowners who previously received a temporary reduction in “taxable value” from their assessment may now see an increase in their tax bill more than two percent from last year. But in no case will the taxable value be more than the initial Prop. 13 base year plus two percent annually from the date of purchase. Although that may seem unfair, keep in mind that while the reduction was only temporary, the savings you received when your property was worth less are permanent.

If in doubt about the current value of your property, check sales of comparable homes in your neighborhood. If homes like yours are selling for less than the valuation on your latest bill contact your county assessor and ask that the value and resulting tax be adjusted to reflect true current value.

Voted Indebtedness

Voted Indebtedness charges reflect the repayment cost of bonds approved by the voters. Local general obligation bonds for libraries, parks, police and fire facilities and other capital improvements are repaid exclusively by property owners. Because a minority of the population is required to pay the entire amount, the California Constitution of 1879 established the two-thirds vote for approval of these bonds. This assures a strong community consensus before obligating property owners to repay debt for 20 or 30 years.

Until the year 2000 local school bonds also required a two-thirds vote but the passage of Proposition 39 lowered the vote to 55 percent. (Of course this did very little to improve schools as was promised). Because the 55 percent requirement guarantees that most school bonds will pass regardless of merit many homeowners are seeing a significant increase in the Voted Indebtedness column on their tax bills.

In some counties, parcel taxes may appear under this second category of property exactions even though parcel taxes are rarely used to repay debt. Parcel taxes are taxes on property ownership but are not imposed as a percentage of taxable value. Although there is no upper limit to amount of parcel taxes you have to pay  (HJTA is working to change that) the good news is that under Proposition 13 they still require a two-thirds vote.

Direct Assessments

The third type of levy one finds on the typical property tax bill is for direct assessments for services related to property such as street lighting, regional sanitation, flood control, etc. Because of Proposition 218 — the Right to Vote on Taxes Act placed on the ballot by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association in 1996 — property owners must be given a meaningful say in approving new assessments. Before an assessment can be imposed or increased property owners must be informed in writing and be given the opportunity to cast a protest vote on the new assessment or assessment increase.

For more information regarding your property tax bill go to and click on Frequently Asked Questions then scroll down to “About Property Tax Assessments”. If you have a question about your property tax bill you can contact your county assessor, county tax collector or, in many instances, the phone number of the levying agency for each levy that is reflected on your bill. It’s your money and you have a right to be certain that your bill is correct.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

Originally published by

Prop. 13 Report from Legislative Analyst Elicits Mixed Reactions

property taxTwo weeks ago, the California Legislative Analyst released a report entitled “Common Claims About Proposition 13.” On balance, the report was a (mostly) objective view about California’s landmark property tax reduction measure.

As the title of the report implies, there are many claims about Prop. 13, what it does and what it doesn’t do. In fact, we at Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association have collected a lengthy list of “myths” about Prop. 13 that are deeply ensconced in urban legend. For example, the monolithic education bureaucracy repeatedly claims that Prop. 13 starved public education in California. But the fact is that we now spend 30 percent more on a per student, inflation adjusted basis than we did just prior to Prop. 13’s passage – a time in which there is broad consensus that education in California was the best in the nation. Whatever it is that caused the decline in the quality of public education, it certainly hasn’t been the lack of revenue.

The release of the LAO report instigated a great deal of reaction, ranging from cheers to jeers depending on one’s pre-conceived opinions about Prop. 13. Every interest group, it seems, has cherry picked the report to confirm what they already believe. But objectively, for Prop. 13 defenders, we see much in the report that supports what we’ve been saying for decades.

Abraham Lincoln is quoted as saying, “We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses.” Here are the “roses” we see in the report:

First, the report says that residential and commercial properties turn over at about the same rate, and that Prop. 13 is not the cause of this. It also says that residential property tax growth is only slightly more than that from business properties, but this is due to greater residential development. This runs directly counter to those who desire to strip Prop. 13 protections from business properties.

Second, the report states that small businesses pay less in property tax because of Proposition 13, and that Prop. 13 does not serve as a disincentive to create small businesses. This busts another bubble floated by Prop. 13’s detractors.

Third, and most importantly for the Jarvis faithful comprised of senior homeowners, the report shows that assessed valuation limits provide greater security to retirees.

About the only item in the report that Prop. 13 haters can point to is the LAO’s conclusion that wealthy Californians, who own higher value properties, have benefited more than those with modest homes. But to this we respond with a resounding “Duh.” Obviously, given that Prop. 13’s rate limits and limits on increases in taxable value apply equally to all property, those with more expensive properties will benefit more. Prop. 13’s protections were never designed to be means tested. It provides the same rules to every property owner in California, from the owners of modest bungalows to mansions and from small mom and pop businesses to corporations. It doesn’t pick winners and losers. Only winners.

As California’s leading defender of Proposition 13, we have only a few of quibbles with the LAO report. Here, we will discuss only one. Specifically, the report makes much of the fact that local governments had the power to reduce tax rates prior to Prop. 13’s enactment in 1978 and that this – it is implied – offset the rapid increases in taxable value that homeowners were experiencing. This is true, but in theory only. In reality, while local governments had that power, they didn’t use it. Reductions in tax rates in no way even closely offset increases in taxable values. How do we know this? Simple. Against every special interest and editorial in California, voters – by a 66 percent margin – launched the modern tax revolt known as Prop. 13. All that was missing were the torches and pitchforks. If tax rates had indeed been reduced, this revolt would never have happened.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

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Proposition 13 Is Safe — For Another Few Weeks

prop 13The Legislature is in adjournment, and with lawmakers at home campaigning for re-election, they are unable to engage in their favorite pastime of undermining Proposition 13 and its protections for California taxpayers.

However, this time out is only a brief respite from the Sacramento politicians’ inexorable pursuit of taxpayers’ wallets, the ferocity of which matches the dedication and intensity of a bear going after honey.

This December, after the election, lawmakers will reconvene to kick off the next two-year legislative session. During the just completed session, with great effort, taxpayer advocates were able to blunt a number of major efforts to modify or undermine Proposition 13, and, as surely as Angelina and Brad will be appearing on the covers of the supermarket tabloids, these attacks on taxpayers will begin anew when the Legislature is back in session.

Bills will be introduced to make it easier to raise taxes on property owners as well as to cut the Proposition 13 protections for commercial property, including small businesses. There may even be an effort to place a surcharge on all categories of property, an idea that was put forward by authors of an initiative that nearly collected enough signatures for placement on this year’s November ballot.

Accompanying the legislative fusillade will come the usual arguments that local government, or schools, or infrastructure, or the homeless, or the elderly, or (fill in the blank with the program or cause of your choice), or all of the preceding, need more money.

Government at all levels has become a militant special interest and its Prime Directive is to increase revenue – to take in more taxpayer dollars that is – and more is never enough.

The dirty little secret behind why government has changed from a service entity, dedicated to meeting the needs of its constituents, to a rapacious overlord, is that since being granted virtually unfettered collective bargaining rights in 1977, California’s state and local government workers have become the highest compensated public employees in all 50 states. With the high pay comes high union dues, collected by the employing entity and turned over to the government employee union leadership. These millions of dollars can then be used as a massive war chest to elect a pro-union majority in the Legislature and on the governing bodies of most local governments. And since these elected officials’ political futures are dependent on the goodwill of their union sponsors, there are almost no limits on what they will be willing to do to extract more money from taxpayers to be shoveled into ever increasing pay, benefits and pensions for government workers. (Government employee pension debt is several hundred billion dollars).

Literally, the only protections that average folks have from a total mugging by state and local governments are Proposition 13 and Proposition 218, the Right to Vote on Taxes Act. These popular propositions put limits on how much can be extracted from taxpayers by capping annual increases in property taxes, requiring a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to raise state taxes and guaranteeing the right of voters to have the final say on local tax increases.

It is easy to see why these taxpayer protections are despised by the grasping political class and their government employee union allies. This is also why taxpayers will have to work hard to preserve them.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

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Ballot Measures That Could Cost You Big Bucks

VotedElection month is rapidly approaching. That’s right, “election month” because, since 2002, California voters have been freed from casting ballots in person on the official Election Day, which this year is November 8. Voting by mail begins October 10.

Polls show that many voters are disenchanted with the coming election because the major candidates for president are held in such low esteem. However, whether you are a strong advocate for a candidate or are disillusioned, it would be a huge mistake to ignore the ballot measures. Besides candidates, voters must decide on 17 state propositions and hundreds of local tax and bond measures designed to dip into taxpayers’ wallets.

A number of the state measures will impact taxpayers. Propositions 55 is an extension of California’s highest state income tax rate in the nation, which was sold as “temporary” when approved by voters in 2012. Proposition 56 would increase tobacco taxes to fund ongoing programs that will demand funding, even when the number of smokers declines. Proposition 53 is also important as it would expand taxpayers’ right to vote on major state bonds for mega-projects costing more than $2 billion.

To help voters make informed decisions, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has created a special website, California Initiatives 2016, which has simple summaries of what the 17 initiatives will do and links to the websites of the sponsors and opponents of each measure. This helpful taxpayer tool can be found at

However, for average citizens, the real pocket gougers will appear on local ballots. These include 184 school bonds with a face value of over $25 billion. The actual cost to taxpayers of these bonds, which place a lien on property to guarantee repayment, is more than double face value after interest is included.

Remember, whether or not voters think these local bonds are justified, taxpayers are entitled to good value for each hard earned tax dollar. This determination can best be made by researching the measure as well as the school district’s record of responding to the needs of students, parents and taxpayers. A complete list of these local school construction bonds can be found at

Taxpayer advocate Richard Michael, who maintains a bond tracking website, reminds us that promoters of these bonds are enamored with the following words to convince you to vote yes: “21st century;” “school improvement;” “college and career ready;” “technology;” “leaking roofs;” “asbestos;” “safety systems;” “aging facilities;” etc. To this list we would add “broken toilets,” a favorite with the Los Angeles Unified School District that managed to push through 5 bonds in a period of 13 years. The almost universal use of these words is unlikely a coincidence, since so many bond backers employ the same consultants who make recommendations on how to frame arguments to increase the chances of passage.

School bonds, of course are not the only tax measures that will appear on local ballots. There are other bonds, parcel taxes, sales taxes and utility user taxes to be voted on throughout California. For example, Bay Area voters are facing a $3.5 billion BART bond and Los Angeles County will decide on an additional half-cent sales tax to support the MTA that is suffering declining ridership. All of these local measures need careful scrutiny.

While voters can still wait until the traditional “first Tuesday after the first Monday” in November to vote in person, if you have done your homework and want to share what you have learned with family, friends, neighbors and contacts, don’t wait. In the November 2014 election, more than 60 percent of California voters cast votes by mail. Information on how to be a smart voter will not help anyone who has already cast their ballot.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

This piece was originally published at

A Clear and Present Danger to Proposition 13

property taxThe attacks on Proposition 13 began within a few days after its overwhelming passage by California voters on June 6, 1978. Over the last three and half decades, this landmark taxpayer protection has been assailed in the Legislature, the courts and by ballot initiatives sponsored by tax-and-spend interests. These assaults continue to this day.

In a development that has surprised taxpayer advocates and the business community, a new attack on Proposition 13 is quickly gaining traction. Filed as an initiative with the sympathetic title of “Lifting Children and Families Out of Poverty Act,” the proposal would impose a massive $6 billion property tax increase on both homeowners and business properties. Its primary backer is Conway Collis, a former member of the California Board of Equalization.

The fact that there is yet another attack on Proposition 13 is not much of a surprise. However, this proposal is as odd as it is dangerous. First, it is not being financed by the usual anti-Proposition 13 coalition of public sector unions and local government interests. Instead, the funding is coming from anti-poverty groups aligned with the Catholic Church, including the Sisters of Charity.

Second, in a strange political move, the proposal would impose its sliding scale of property tax increases – euphemistically labeled as “surcharges” – on residential properties as well as commercial real estate. Conventional wisdom in Sacramento has been that the most likely attack on Proposition 13 would be limited to commercial property with the imposition of a so-called “split roll” tax. (Proposition 13 maintained California’s historical tradition of taxing all real estate at the same rate. “Split roll” proposals – which remain a constant threat – would impose higher rates and/or different tax rules on business properties.)

By imposing higher taxes on homes have the proponents made a political miscalculation? While it is true that, for now, the tax increase would only impact properties with a current assessed value in excess of $3 million, owners of average homes are fully aware that any breach in Proposition 13 could open the floodgates to more attacks that weaken their own protections. California homeowners, in other words, fully grasp the notion of “slippery slope” when it comes to attacks on Proposition 13.

By adopting a “go it alone” strategy without the usual left of center coalition, the proponents face the very real prospect of a broad opposition coalition. For example, public sector labor organizations are more focused on extending the Proposition 30 income tax increases. If they view the Conway Collis measure as a threat to their own interests they could very well oppose it or, worse yet, oppose it with significant money.

Moreover, it appears that the proponents haven’t fully comprehended how local government interests will react to the creation of a new state (not local) fund that would distribute the property tax proceeds generated by the new “surcharges.” It is likely that cities, counties and special districts will view this an unwanted intrusion into a primary source of their own funding.

The above are just a few of the problems with the Collis initiative. There are many more that will become evident as scrutiny from various political interests begins to intensify.

But one thing is certain. With the recent infusion of nearly a million dollars for the signature gathering effort, property owners need to take this threat very seriously. And while there is no guarantee that it will qualify for the 2016 ballot, anyone who values the protections afforded by Proposition 13 better not wait too long to prepare for a tough fight in November.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.