After years of property taxes being imposed by well-intentioned but misleading ballot measures, the State Legislature passed – and then-Governor Brown signed – AB195 in February 2017.
This law requires that municipalities inform voters of the potential tax implications of all bond measures – basically, how much taxpayers will pay, the cost-per-unit of taxable value, and the duration of the tax. I call it Bond Honesty. In the past, many bonds were approved with no reference, in the 75-word ballot summary, that a “yes” vote would impose a cost to the taxpayer.
San Jose Evergreen Community College District’s 2016 Measure C is a perfect example of how bond measures omitted the fact that they create a cost to the taxpayer. The ballot summary read: “To repair/ upgrade classrooms to prepare students/ veterans for jobs/ university transfer by repairing/ building nursing, engineering, vocational, technology, science/ job training classrooms, improving campus, earthquake safety/ disabled access, remove asbestos/ lead paint, acquiring, constructing, repairing sites, facilities/ equipment, shall San Jose-Evergreen Community College District issue $748,000,000 in bonds at legal rates, no money for administrators’ salaries/ pensions, requiring citizen oversight, independent audits, all funds used locally?”
Nowhere in this description, designed to “sell” the bond to the voting public, does it let the voters know that these bonds are paid for with a tax on the value of their property or how much it is estimated to cost them. Not once is the word “tax” even mentioned! Unless the voter went and read the full ballot language (usually printed in a separate booklet or provided separately online), one would not know that a “yes” vote would cost one money.
Now, after the failure of a very few 2018 bond ballot measures, there is a growing demand to eliminate this requirement for the next election cycle.
Opponents of the Bond Honesty law are saying that the 75 word limit on the ballot is not adequate to properly inform the public about the benefits of the bond and also the costs, so they are pushing to have the State Legislature suspend the requirements of AB195 requirements until the law’s language is changed.
While I realize it may be difficult to sum up a ballot measure in 75 words, I would hope that our State Legislature maintains the requirement to inform voters that local bond measures will need to be paid for by a tax on their property.
Instead, if more words are needed to describe bond measures, the sensible thing to do would be for the Legislature to increase the word count from 75 to 100 words. Let’s keep our bond measures honest – don’t remove the requirement that helps us be better-informed voters.
Johnny Khamis is a San Jose councilmember who voted against a recommendation to oppose the measure.