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Decision Curbs Special Taxes in Calif. Districts

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A decision by the California supreme court requiring a two-thirds margin of voter approval for new special taxes may thwart one avenue of new funding for financially strapped school districts, education lobbyists said last week.

Officials in San Francisco, where 55 percent of the voters in a December election approved a temporary quarter-cent sales-tax hike for the school district, have already raised questions about their plan to implement the measure in February.

The tax increase would raise an estimated $21 million in its first year.

The court ruled 5 to 2 last month that taxing agencies created after the state's landmark tax-limitation measure, Proposition 13, was passed in 1978 must gain two-thirds approval from local voters in order to increase tax rates.

The decision marked a significant shift from a 1982 supreme court ruling, which found that government agencies without property-taxing authority could impose tax hikes with a majority vote instead of the higher standard set by Proposition 13.

While last month's ruling focused on a San Diego County tax earmarked for construction of new jails and courtrooms, school districts are also likely to feel its pinch.

New Law In Question

Education lobbyists said the decision came just as they were trying to inform district officials of a new law that allowed districts to implement a special sales-tax increase with majority voter approval.

The tax hikes would be available statewide beginning in July 1993, under the law passed last year. Officials in San Francisco and San Mateo counties were given an immediate go-ahead, although San Mateo voters defeated the plan.

Observers last week said it was unclear how the court's ruling would affect implementation of the law. San Francisco officials last month decided to proceed with the plan despite top administrators' worries that it could be overturned if challenged.

Education advocates are unsure how to approach the issue now.

"We were actively advocating this as a tool for funding, but now we are not going to be running out there too fast," said Kevin Gordon, director of governmental relations for the California School Boards Association. "It's going to have a major dampening effect on the measure."

Mr. Gordon said that although San Francisco has been the only district to test the new law on voters, education analysts had expected several other districts also to try to take advantage of it.

School officials described the decision as ironic in that it said Proposition 13 would permit a majority-backed tax increase for general funding purposes, but sets a higher threshold for special-project taxes.

"People are not going to vote for just general tax increases without knowing where it's going to be spent," said Mr. Gordon.

Beyond funding under the new measure, however, the ruling is not expected to have a significant impact on school funding. A two-thirds majority is already required for passage of school-bond issues.

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