Struggling to cope with the effects of deep cuts in state education aid, officials of several Southern California school districts this summer turned for help to an obscure 1972 law written to give one community taxing power to buy gas street- lights.
Citing the authority of the hitherto-neglected statute, the districts moved to pad their tight budgets by raising property-tax rates without submitting them to the voters.
Officials’ hopes for a brighter fiscal future were quickly snuffed, however, by anti-tax forces, which mounted a vocal public and court campaign against the tax hikes.
Several of the districts have already retreated from their plans following lawsuits filed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, named for the late anti-tax crusader who launched California’s historic Proposition 13. .
The group charged that the special assessments, which were designed to pay for facility maintenance, amounted to little more than a special tax--one that by law should be referred to voters.
“We think what happened was several school boards were sold a bill of goods by consultants who had looked at the 1972 statute,” said Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Los Angeles-based tax watchdog group. “Schools have other ways of raising funds if they choose to do so.”
While most school officials’ interest in the tax-assessment statute appears to have waned, the taxpayers’ association continues to fight a handful of districts that are still pursuing the idea.
Lawmakers this year cut about $1.2 billion from the education budget as part of their effort to close the largest state deficit in the nation’s history. .
Mr. Vosburgh added that, while the citizens’ group could not stomach what he called the “poisoned apple” strategy of trying to bypass a referendum, voters might understand why some districts would need to ask for more money.
“This is not a comment on how the schools are run; we are just saying that this is a special tax” that must be put on the ballot, he said.
Such referendums in California must be approved by two-thirds of the voters.
Mr. Vosburgh added, however, that the financial woes plaguing many school budgets are indicative of the tough times citizens are weathering as well.
“In many cases,” he contended, “there are administrative solutions to these problems.” --L.H.
A version of this article appeared in the September 11, 1991 edition of Education Week as State Journal: Tax-hike Strategy Snuffed