State Court rules Prop 218 has limited control of citizen initiatives

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At the end of August, the California Supreme Court may have offered the Idyllwild Fire Protection District a solution to its recently failed tax measures.

In a case involving a cannabis local initiative that would legalize and tax medical-marijuana dispensaries in the City of Upland, the Supreme Court issued a decision involving the right of citizens to propose initiatives and Proposition 218, which has been incorporated into the state Constitution.

While the actual case involved only when the cannabis measure could go to the voters — either in a general or special election — the same section of the Constitution requires a two-thirds-majority vote to approve a tax measure.

Although the constitutional section (from Prop 218) requires tax measures to be voted on in general election, the court said that requirement was limited to measures brought by a “local government.” The city should have called a special election sooner and let the voters decide.

The court wrote that there are virtually no limits on a citizens’ initiative. The court ordered Upland to hold a special election for this initiative.

“Multiple provisions of the state Constitution explicitly constrain the power of local governments to raise taxes. But we will not lightly apply such restrictions on local governments to voter initiatives, … We conclude that article XIII C, section 2, subdivision (b) does not limit voters’ power to propose and adopt initiatives concerning taxation,” the majority of the court opined.

Subdivision (b), which requires a general election vote, begins with “No local government” as does Subdivision (d) which requires the two-thirds approval of a tax measure. Political commentators and state politicians are concerned that this decision would apply to allow approval of a citizen-initiated tax measure by less than two-thirds majority vote.

Assembly Republicans are already calling for a constitutional amendment to clarify that all local tax measures must have a two-thirds approval.

After the court’s opinion was released, Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, issued the following statement: “If local initiatives are exempt from critical taxpayer protections, then public agencies could easily deny taxpayers their rights by colluding with outside interests to propose taxes in the form of an initiative, then submitting a tax under a lower vote threshold than that currently mandated by the Constitution.”

Until or unless the state Supreme Court directly rules that the two-thirds tax-passing majority applies to initiatives, IFPD’s friends might consider gaining the signatures to bring a district tax increase forward themselves.

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