California Legislature Must Restore Democracy to Transit Funding
By Robert Cruickshank
Two pieces of transit funding news came out of Los Angeles today. The first is that the L.A. Streetcar won its vote among downtown property owners to create a local taxing district and raise $125 million in revenue to begin building a streetcar line.
Unfortunately, we also learned that Measure J, the Los Angeles County Metro transit tax extension that would have helped deliver more rail projects sooner “failed.” It received 66.11% of the vote, a huge landslide victory in almost any other race. But because of the rule requiring a two-thirds vote for most local taxes, Measure J had to get 66.66%.
Metro has said they may try again and there’s every reason to believe they will. Perhaps the next proposal can stay as far away as possible from the 710 extension, and include some more bus funding, both in order to defuse two major sources of criticism and to make a good plan even better.
But it shouldn’t take a two-thirds vote to pass a transit tax. Or any other tax, for that matter. California Democrats have begun exploring reducing two-thirds requirements for parcel taxes to fund schools and other reductions of the two-thirds rule are under discussion. Getting rid of the two-thirds rule for transit funding absolutely ought to be among them.
Many transit taxes across California have “failed” even with widespread majority public support. Monterey County saw transit taxes go down in 2006 and in 2008 despite winning 60% of the vote, leaving many important projects unfinished, including rail to the Monterey Peninsula. Alameda County also saw a transit package narrowly miss the two-thirds mark this year, and is funding a recount to see if 400 votes will flip and lead to Measure B’s passage.
The cost of the two-thirds rule is high. As gas prices soar, as people need reliable alternatives to driving, the lack of transit is an increasing drag on the economy and on household budgets. Money not spent on gas is money that can be spent at local businesses and helping put people back to work. Anti-tax folks may think they’re saving money, but as they sit in traffic and pay high gas prices, they’re losing more than they would pay with a higher tax.
Two-thirds rules aren’t democratic. They give outsize power small groups who can hold the public process hostage. As California dismantles the legacy of the tax revolt, a revolt that very nearly destroyed the state, the two-thirds rule for local taxes - including transit - must go.
Robert Cruickshank writes on California politics at Calitics and California High Speed Rail Blog. This article was originally published at California High Speed Rail Blog.