Despite what they say, voters favor local taxes
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — When it comes to new taxes, voters tend to say government should ask for money from somebody else, like the rich. But that doesn't always hold true, especially on the local level.
During last week's elections, voters across the country opted to raise taxes to help their cities, counties and school districts.
"I'm OK with being taxed for making sure we don't go under and people are taken care of," said Elizabeth Boyd, 35, an independent voter in Sacramento. "I think it's really good for us to pay for schools and make sure they're kept open and teachers aren't being laid off for ridiculous reasons."
In California, 171 of the 240 local tax and bond measures on the Nov. 6 ballot won approval, a 71 percent pass rate. Those increases came in addition to voters passing statewide tax hikes championed by Gov. Jerry Brown. Ohio voters approved all local library taxes and a majority of local school bonds.
Voters in Alabama, Oklahoma and Colorado were among those also passing local tax increases.
Statewide tax measures did not fare as well. They failed in three of the five states where they were on the ballot. Even in California, statewide tax increases have failed far more often than they have passed.
Local revenue measures generally do better than statewide tax hikes, in part because voters feel more assured about how the money will be spent.
Anti-tax activists warn that voters who approved new fees will come to regret it.
Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said people will "get sticker shock as to the total amount of tax burden they have. When you add them all up, they are going to start to wonder, 'What hit us?'"
He says some will come to realize "it would have been better to adopt certain reforms."
Voters seem to agree in theory, if not in practice.
National exit polling after last week's elections showed that only 1 in 10 would welcome new income taxes for all Americans. And half of the electorate said the wealthy should pay more.
The "tax the other guy" mentality is dominant in polling in even in the most cash-strapped states, according to a 2010 study by the Pew Center on the States and the Public Policy Institute of California.
Despite those survey results, voters tend to have a more favorable opinion about increasing taxes when they can see that the extra revenue will benefit their community directly. A 2010 analysis by The Associated Press found that voters in a large cross-section of states passed 50 percent or more of the local tax initiatives that came before them.
Such numbers show that "citizens often want more spending —and are willing to pay for it — than the political leaders are willing to allow," said David Brunori, who studies state and local taxes as a professor of public policy at George Washington University.
And while a slew of voter-approved tax increases in a state such as California, where progressives have a stranglehold on politics at all levels, may not come as a shock, similar behavior in more conservative places is perhaps more telling.
Residents in Baldwin County, Ala., described as "very conservative" by school Superintendent Alan Lee, voted by nearly a two-thirds margin to renew a 1-cent-per-dollar sales tax for schools. Lee had threatened to close schools, eliminate hundreds of positions and cancel athletic programs if the tax renewal failed.
In Oklahoma, voters easily approved more than a dozen increases in local sales or property taxes. In the conservative Oklahoma City suburb of Moore, voters endorsed both property and sales tax increases to help fund parks and recreational facilities.
Ohio voters approved all 15 local library funding measures before them and passed 55 percent of the proposed school tax hikes, a slight improvement over last year's passage rate, according to the Ohio School Boards Association.
Even El Paso County, Colo., the birthplace of the state's famed Taxpayers' Bill of Rights, which requires voters to sign off on even the smallest increases, last week decided to raise local taxes to fund the sheriff's department."
In California, Sacramento voters, who tend to be more conservative than other areas of the state, supported a sales tax hike by a 2-to-1 ratio in addition to two school construction bonds.
"That's a pretty clear choice of the people," City Councilman Darrell Fong said. "They don't want to see a reduction in service, especially when it is to public safety and parks. They know we've made the cuts already."
A solid majority of voters across the state backed the Democratic governor's budget-balancing Proposition 30, which will raise income taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year and boost the state sales tax by a quarter-cent.
Roy Ulrich, who teaches tax policy at the University of California, Berkeley, says such results mark a tipping point long in the making.
"It's really remarkable that people are beginning to raise their own taxes," he said. "The face of the electorate is changing considerably. It's not the end, but it's the beginning of the end of the tax revolt."
Associated Press writers Judy Lin in Sacramento, Phillip Rawls in Montgomery, Ala., and Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus, Ohio, and Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.