Transit taxes would be easier to pass under proposed constitutional amendment 

Lowering the voter threshold for ballot measures from a two-thirds majority to 55 percent could give Bart, Muni, Caltrain and other agencies new opportunities to seek funding at the ballot box. - S.F. EXAMINER FILE PHOTO
  • S.F. Examiner File Photo
  • Lowering the voter threshold for ballot measures from a two-thirds majority to 55 percent could give Bart, Muni, Caltrain and other agencies new opportunities to seek funding at the ballot box.

Initiatives to provide extra funds for BART, Muni, Caltrain and other transit agencies could stand a better chance of approval due to a renewed movement to lower voting thresholds for ballot measures.

Attempts by transit groups to pass parcel taxes, sales tax increases or general obligation bonds have been stymied because of the state requirement that they achieve a two-thirds ballot box majority. Last month, however, two legislative proposals were introduced to lower that barrier to 55 percent — a move that could benefit Bay Area transit agencies.

Faced with a $7.5 billion capital shortfall, BART is considering several such ballot measures, with a measure likely to go before voters within the next five years. Muni, with its structural operating deficit, and Caltrain, which lacks a dedicated funding source, also are considering such measures.

Caltrain spokesman Mark Simon said the two-thirds threshold makes even needed ballot measures difficult to pass.
“There is broad, deep public support for these measures,” Simon said. “But to put us at the two-thirds threshold virtually guarantees that you can’t get them approved.”

The requirement was part of Proposition 13, the landmark 1978 tax reform passed by voters. Last month, state Sens. Carol Liu and Ellen Corbett introduced a constitutional amendment to lower the threshold for local measures. The measure would need two-thirds approval from both chambers of the Legislature to qualify as a ballot measure. At that point, the amendment would go before voters — likely in 2014 — where a simple majority could pass it.

Similar proposals have failed in the past, said Joshua Shaw, executive director of the California Transit Association. But with Democrats holding a two-thirds majority in both legislative chambers, transit backers are optimistic.

“This is the best chance this measure has had in a long time,” Shaw said. “Neither the Democratic
leadership nor Gov. [Jerry] Brown has come out and specifically supported this yet, but we think this could be our time.”

David Wolfe, legislative director of the anti-tax Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, called the proposal a direct attack on Prop 13.

“We understand that local transportation projects are very important, but passing regressive tax measures is not very prudent,” he said. “These measures would affect every single person in the district, which is why we think there should be the largest threshold available to approve them.”

While lowering the approval threshold would definitely help the chances of major infrastructure proposals, it could have a greater effect on day-to-day transit funding, said spokesman Randy Rentschler of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.

High-awareness public works projects like BART’s earthquake safety bond have attained a two-thirds vote in the past. But measures to provide extra funding for agencies such as Muni and Caltrain have rarely polled that well, Rentschler said.

Caltrain is pursuing a tax measure to fund its operating needs, but Simon said how it moves forward depends on the voter threshold being lowered.

“We still have an obligation to the public to prove that we’ve tried everything else first,” he said. “I think we’ve done that through salary freezes, hiring freezes, layoffs and other measures. And, at 55 percent, the threshold is high enough that we still have to prove that we’re doing a good job taking care of the public’s money.”

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Will Reisman

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