Lawmaker’s Word Games Could Send Your Money Down the Storm Drain

StormwaterYou might remember that about three years ago, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors proposed a new tax on property owners to pay for stormwater capture and cleanup.

There was supposed to be a mail-only election to approve the stormwater parcel tax, but it never happened.

Homeowners, businesses and school districts opposed the tax. Then there was public outrage over a deceptive mailing that so resembled junk mail that many people threw it away, not realizing the junky-looking flyer was their official notification of the proposed tax, or that it contained a form they needed to protest the tax hike.

People were just enraged, and the county supervisors dropped the matter. They didn’t even mail out the ballots.

Ever since Proposition 13 was passed overwhelmingly by fed-up taxpayers in 1978, local governments have been looking for ways around its ironclad requirement that new taxes must be approved by two-thirds of voters.

Some local governments renamed their new taxes “fees.” Voters tried to put a stop to that in 1996 by passing Proposition 218, the “Right to Vote on Taxes Act.” Then some local governments overcharged for services and used the extra money for other expenses. Voters fought back in 2010 by passing Proposition 26, the “Stop Hidden Taxes Initiative.”

But now in Sacramento, there’s a new deception in the works. It ought to be called the “Dictionary Gambit.”

A bill by Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Sherman Oaks, would simply change the definition of “sewer service” so stormwater is included in it. That would allow local governments to charge property owners for stormwater management projects without voter approval.

The bill, SB 1298, is on the verge of passing in the state Assembly. It’s possible that in a matter of days it could be on its way to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature.

The city of Glendora has already written a letter to the governor asking him to veto the bill if it reaches his desk.

“We oppose SB 1298 because we strongly believe it violates the intent of Prop 218,” wrote Glendora mayor Gene Murabito, speaking for a unanimous City Council. “Citizens clearly voted to have the right to vote on taxes, charges, fees and assessments.”

California voters almost had a chance to vote on a proposal like Hertzberg’s bill. In December, groups representing cities, counties and water agencies filed a ballot initiative that would have amended the state constitution to allow new fees for stormwater management to be imposed without a vote of the people.

Guess what happened to it.

“The proponents of the initiative declined to move forward after doing polling research,” says the official Assembly analysis of SB 1298. But “this bill seeks to address with a majority vote bill” what the proposed constitutional amendment could only have accomplished with the approval of the voters.

Why is this even legal?

Certainly stormwater management is important for the environment and for the local water supply. It’s also expensive. One estimate put the cost at $20 billion over the next 20 years for L.A. County and the cities within it. …

In April, the L.A. County supervisors discussed paying for stormwater projects by asking developers to pay extra fees, or by asking voters to approve a new tax.

But if SB 1298 is signed into law, they won’t have to ask. Billions of dollars for stormwater management projects will be magically redefined into fees for sewer service. Property owners will have no choice but to pay those fees or sell their property. Taxpayers will have no opportunity to vote on it.

According to Hertzberg’s statement in the Assembly analysis of the bill, SB 1298 adds “missing definitions and direction on the interpretation of Proposition 218 while maintaining transparency and accountability.”

That’s not the way Glendora’s Murabito sees it. As he explained in his letter to Brown, “Proposition 218 was adopted by the voters of the state and any carve-out of services or areas from its oversight can only be done by the voters themselves and not through legislative process.”

That’s a definition of the principle of government by consent of the governed.

If you don’t consent to the redefining of billion-dollar stormwater projects as “sewer service,” this would be a good time to call your state representatives and the governor to let them know. The governor’s office can be reached by phone at 916-445-2841 or by fax at 916-558-3160, or look up your representatives at findyourrep.legislature.ca.gov.

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