A Local Car Tax?

For reasons of good budgeting and accountability, California's local governments should have the ability to raise their own taxes. The principle should be clear: a local government that makes a spending decision on the program should have to set the tax that pays for the program. Then, those local officials must defend their tax and spending decision to voters.

Of course, California government is so centralized that local governments have little taxing authority. They are spenders, and they have spent big, particularly on salaries and benefits for law enforcement.

The depths of California's problems in this area are exposed whenever someone proposes to give localities more power to tax locally. Witness the opposition to Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to eliminate redevelopment agencies -- which includes a new constitutional power for local voters, by a 55-percent supermajority to raise taxes for economic development. The locals object to getting this new power because it comes with responsibility and accountability. They'd rather just keep being spenders, and enjoying the free ride and political power of redevelopment agencies.

Mark Leno, a state senator from San Francisco, recently proposed to give locals the power to raise the vehicle license fee, or car tax, for local programs. This sounds like a good idea, but the fine print shows it doesn't go far enough. The car tax, under Leno's proposal, couldn't be raised locally by local governments themselves. It would require a two-thirds vote by the voters in the local community as well -- a high hurdle that allows a determined minority to frustrate the will of the majority. A car tax hike would also require a two-thirds vote of the local government.

Those are the very same barriers to local taxation that have centralized power in Sacramento -- and turned local governments into spenders. Leno has obvious political reasons for keeping those barriers in place -- they are part of the holy Prop 13 system that centralized power. But Leno's failure to challenge that status quo, while understandable, exposes just how government power has been centralized in the name of "people power" and how local government spending has grown in the name of small government.

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