Tax measures multiply

The recession grinds on everywhere in government—at the statehouse, in City Hall, and at the Serna Center (where Sac city schools are run).

And everywhere government has come up with the same idea—go to the ballot and ask citizens to dig into their pockets to help.

The Sacramento City Council has polls showing that local voters generally support a small sales-tax measure, either a quarter- or a half-cent, to help bring back city services, like community swimming pools, or police protection, or parks maintenance.

Voters are even more likely—76 percent or so—to support a special-purpose tax measure, going just toward cops or just toward fire protection.

But in California’s screwy system, it’s actually easier to raise a general-purpose tax than it is to raise taxes for specific programs or projects. A general-purpose tax just needs more than 50 percent of the votes, where a narrower measure funding just cops or parks has to pass the two-thirds threshold. So, we’ll likely end up with two city ballot measures: one to raise the tax, and one to tell the city how to spend it.

Those two measures will join two tax measures on the state ballot: Gov. Jerry Brown’s millionaire tax, which will raise taxes on California’s high-income residents, and Molly Munger’s competing measure raising taxes on most Californians, mostly to pay for schools.

That’s more than enough to make for a taxing experience at the ballot box this fall. But that’s not all.

Sacramento Regional Transit’s general manager Mike Wiley has for years nursed a dream that one that one day Sacramento County voters will approve a modest increase in the local sales tax, or some other revenue measure, to build a public-transit system that provides “full access and full mobility for all.”

November would be the time to ask voters, a high turnout election, with a higher portion of Democrats and liberals. But the prospect of competing measures from the city and state have got to be a little chilling for RT’s chances.

But wait, there’s more. Sac city schools Superintendent Jonathan Raymond and some school-board members and administrators have been quietly exploring the possibility of some voter-approved bonds or even a parcel tax to raise money for the beleaguered school district.

Sacramento schools have approved a brutal $28 million in cuts, and are looking at slashing $15 million more if Brown’s tax measure fails in the fall.

A parcel tax, assessed to property owners, would close some of that gap. But it sounds like the movers and shakers in the district have already decided that a bond measure, worth more than $300 million, is the way to go.

It’s easier to pass a bond than a parcel tax with just 55 percent of votes needed, instead of the 66.7 percent.

The schools do need upgrading. The district right now is making a wish list: roofs, science labs, bathrooms, wiring, you name it.

But the bonds could be a tough sell. First off, any whiff that this money is going toward unneeded fad technology with pricey consultants attached, and Bites is going tea party on this one.

And if the bonds go to legit projects, it still won’t directly solve the district’s most pressing problems: larger class sizes, cuts to vital programs, hundreds of pink slips every year.

Hopefully, if schools can be upgraded and the district can save general-fund money—through energy efficiency for example—that’s potentially millions more freed up to bring back programs and teachers, bus drivers, librarians and counselors.

But the case has yet to be made. And the schools will have competition.