A small minority shouldn't block public works projects

Assembly legislation would allow a 55% voter approval of local infrastructure bonds, rather than requiring two-thirds. It's already sparking fireworks.

SACRAMENTO — July 4th. American democracy. Majority rule.

That's my cheap way of getting into a column about making approval of local public works projects more democratic.

For a very long time in California, a small minority of voters — 33% plus one — have been able to block higher property taxes and new bonds to finance job-creating, lifestyle-improving public works such as local roads, sewers and firehouses.

Such local endeavors require a two-thirds majority approval of voters.

As we celebrate our nation's birth, this oppressive, paralyzing minority rule just seems plain un-American.

There is an exception to the two-thirds requirement, approved by statewide voters in 2000. School construction bonds can be passed on a 55% local vote.

Any supermajority vote requirement is illogical and contradictory when compared to the mere 50% plus one needed to pass statewide bond issues. But at least 55% gets much closer to majority rule.

Legislation that recently squeaked through the state Assembly would lower the vote threshold for all local infrastructure bonds — not just for school construction — to 55%.

The proposed state constitutional amendment (ACA 8) is sure to generate a lot of fireworks in the Senate and, if approved there, on the November 2014 California ballot.

That's because it would tamper with the so-called third rail of California politics, the 35-year-old Proposition 13. That initiative put a limit on property taxes. ACA 8 would allow the limit to be exceeded on a 55% vote to finance local government bond debt for infrastructure improvements. Now it requires a two-thirds vote.

But Prop. 13 has been tampered with before — the school bond exception, for example.

"Why make it easier to approve one kind of service over another?" asks Michael Coleman, a consultant for the League of California Cities who keeps track of local elections.

Political answer: Because schools are more popular than sewers.

Coleman says that since 2001, more than 80% of school bond issues requiring 55% approval have passed. But 60% of these winners would have failed if a two-thirds vote had still been required.

Half of all local tax measures requiring a two-thirds vote fail, he says.

ACA 8 was authored by then-Assemblyman Robert Blumenfield (D-Woodland Hills), who since has resigned from the Legislature and was sworn in Monday as a Los Angeles City Councilman.

His proposal would give local governments "tools to make the choices and the investments in the infrastructure that they need to grow their economies and make their cities livable," he told colleagues during a June 15 floor debate.

The measure — requiring a two-thirds legislative majority because it's a constitutional amendment — barely passed on a party-line 54-25 vote.

"You know and I know," asserted Republican Assemblyman Don Wagner of Irvine, "that bond is just a four-letter word for tax."

It was an example of Democrats exercising their new supermajority voting power in the Legislature.