Unpacking the effort to allow AQMD to raise SoCal taxes
There are rules when it comes to taxes.
How high they can go, what they can be used for… and there are rules about which public agencies are allowed to levy tax increases. Because really, we don’t want just any government agency deciding they want to come after our money for any purpose, right?
The California State Revenue and Tax Code and the Public Utilities Code give counties, cities, and transportation authorities the power to impose general taxes or taxes for a specific purpose in areas they have authority over. The problem happens when someone else wants a crack at the taxpayer, which is what the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) is attempting.
For over a year the South Coast AQMD Board of Directors and staff have been polling and working on a bill in Sacramento that would give the AQMD board, or voters in the district, the authority to put a sales tax measure on the ballot. They want to change the rules. The ultimate goal is a possible half-cent sales tax that would equate to a $1.4 billion annual tax increase on residents of Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, and Orange Counties. Supposedly, “community members” came forward asking the AQMD to pursue this.
“ So many questions, so few answers on a potential special district tax increase that covers an unprecedented geographical region."
So what would a $1.4 billion tax initiative look like?
Where would the money go? We are hearing that taxpayer dollars would be used to pay private companies to purchase new and environmentally cleaner equipment. Taxpayers could be replacing trucks, ships, trains, cargo equipment, buses — mobile sources that are the cause of a vast majority of our regions pollution. One major problem is that the South Coast AQMD doesn’t have authority over mobile source pollution, yet they want to raise our taxes and give it away to private companies to pay for new equipment.
There are other issues.
Staff members of the South Coast AQMD are stating that the group of “community members” who want this tax will actually be the ones drafting the language of the sale tax initiative, apparently without input from the AQMD. There are no answers to how the money would be distributed across the four counties, or even what threshold of voter approval might be needed. Will this require a two-thirds vote from voters in all four counties? Will each individual county Board of Supervisors be required to vote to place it on the ballot? So many questions, so few answers on a potential special district tax increase that covers an unprecedented geographical region.
“One major problem is that the South Coast AQMD doesn’t have authority over mobile source pollution, yet they want to raise our taxes and give it away to private companies to pay for new equipment.”
What we do know is that Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, has submitted what is known as a spot bill, Senate Bill 732. A spot bill is a placeholder bill that doesn’t really say anything but will have its language changed sometime during the legislative year to make it actually mean something. The ultimate goal of SB732 is to get legislative authorization to create a voting district in the South Coast region that will allow local funding measures to be placed on the ballot. That’s code for tax increase.
One of the catches in all this goes back to the rules of how much sales tax can be imposed. Right now, the California Revenue and Taxation Code states that the local portion of the sales tax may not exceed 2 percent. With local transportation taxes and cities all across Southern California, especially in Los Angeles County, passing sales tax initiatives, there isn’t any room for a special district AQMD tax. Unless you change the rules again. The minutes of the Jan. 11, 2019 South Coast AQMD Legislative Committee Meeting show draft bill language including a section that states that this tax would not apply toward the must not exceed limit of 2 percent. In fact the draft bill language states they could be looking for an up to 1 percent sales tax increase, that’s a $2.8 billion annual tax increase. The AQMD lobbyist reports that they have “facilitated dozens of meetings with legislators and their staff “and that the meetings have “been very positive.”
Basically, a non-elected board of a special district is looking for the Legislature to give them power to put a tax increase on the ballot that could exceed the state limit and would ultimately give taxpayer money to private companies to buy new equipment. Private companies and equipment that are likely not even under the jurisdiction of the AQMD. A jaw dropping overstep, even for Sacramento.
This article first appeared in the Orange County Register.