Legislation that would reduce local tax election transparency was approved April 12 by the Senate Governance and Finance Committee and sent the CalTax-opposed bill (SB 532, Wiener) to the Senate Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee.
The bill would remove the requirement that local governments provide voters with crucial tax rate information on the ballot. Under SB 532, local governments that place tax or bond measures with more than one rate on the ballot would not have to comply with existing laws requiring the ballot question to include an annual revenue estimate or the potential tax rate increase necessary to service bond debt – instead, the information would be moved to a voter information guide, where it would be less likely to be read by voters.
Senator Scott Wiener argued that his bill would improve elections by changing requirements “that have proven problematic or even impossible for tiered tax rates and bond issuances.” He said SB 532 would lead to improved financial disclosures that “will help voters better understand the potential financial impacts of a proposed bond or tiered tax measure.”
Wiener said the 75-word limit for ballot descriptions does not allow enough room for details about complex tax and bond measures.
CalTax noted that information is more likely to be read by voters if it is in the ballot question itself, rather than in a separate document where it might be buried amid information about unrelated measures. In a letter to the committee, CalTax argued that SB 532 would reduce voter transparency and increase the likelihood that people would lack comprehensive knowledge of the potential tax burden before casting votes.
Committee members expressed similar concerns.
“I will note that I am very troubled by the bill,” Senator Steven Glazer, a Democrat from the East Bay Area, said. “If the issue is the length of the ballot, in terms of 75 words, then that is something I think we should look at.”
Republican Senator Brian Dahle said: “For me, it’s about trying to get voters educated about what they’re voting on and not confuse them. At the end of the day, I’m for transparency. We need to let the people know what they’re actually being charged.”
Proponents of the bill told the committee that more local taxes will be approved if SB 532 is enacted. The committee’s analysis stated that proponents “point to polling that shows measures lose 5 percent to 15 percent support when they include information that complies with existing law, making the difference in whether the voters approve the measure or it is even placed on the ballot.”
“Supporters add that providing a more thorough explanation in the voter guide would help local agencies explain these issues to voters, and make these measures more likely to pass, providing crucial revenue for local agencies to provide needed services to their residents,” the analysis said.
A majority of tax increases already are approved under current law, CalTax noted.
“In the November 2022 election, 206 of the 297 local tax and bond measures placed on the ballot were approved by voters while complying with current rate disclosure information – a 69 percent passage rate,” CalTax told the committee. “Passage rates for local tax and bond measures have consistently remained high, including when taxpayers are provided detailed, accurate tax rate statements at the ballot box.”
The committee approved the bill with a 5-1 vote.