From the Contra Costa Times:
Tax propositions might rain down on Bay Area residents like an El Niño downpour this year as cities, counties, school districts and agencies try to persuade voters to pay for improved transit, smoother roads, school repairs, city building rehab, and bay water and wildlife conservation.
Transportation authorities in Contra Costa, Solano, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties are planning sales tax elections. Santa Clara County is also talking about a sales tax to help the homeless. BART directors plan a $3 billion bond measure in Contra Costa, Alameda and San Francisco counties. AC Transit directors are talking about a bond measure for the bus system's Oakland to Richmond area. An obscure SF Bay Restoration Authority led the rush to the ballot box with a nine-county parcel-tax measure for the June election. The Walnut Creek City Council and the Walnut Creek School District are discussing measures; so are Orinda, Lafayette and its school district. Not to be left out: the city of Hayward and the Hayward Area Recreation and Park District. On top of that not necessarily complete list, Gov. Jerry Brown has said that the state needs new taxes and fees to maintain its transportation systems. The legislative fist fight between Democrats and Republicans over taxes vs. reallocating existing money has led to months of inaction. An initiative petition campaign has qualified for the November ballot a $9 billion statewide Public Education Facilities Bond Initiative for new and modernized school and community college facilities.
"It does seem somewhat unusual," said Mark Baldassare, president of the Public Policy Institute of California. "Anyone thinking about asking voters to raise taxes or fees is aiming for the November 2016 ballot" that will draw more voters, he said.
Low voter turnout has plagued California elections in recent years, he said. Los Angeles city elections in March drew just 10 percent of eligible voters.
Historically low bond rates might also be driving governments to the ballot box, he said, before the Federal Reserve starts ramping up interest rates.
The rush to get a hand into residents' wallets unnerves taxpayer advocates.
"Why didn't anyone tell me it was open season on taxpayers?" asked Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
He challenged the bay conservation measure as one that many would pay for but that would most benefit the corporations ringing the bay shoreline, not the people in the outer reaches of the bay.
The "Clean and Healthy Bay Ballot Measure" on the June ballot would charge residents $12 a year, raising $25 million a year for 20 years to reduce trash and pollution, improve water quality, restore habitat, improve shore access and protect against floods.
Another taxpayer advocate cast a gimlet eye over the ballot prospects and said he was appalled. "We're certainly challenged just to keep track of them," said Jack Weir, president of the Contra Costa Taxpayers Association.
The problem he and others see is the growing burden of paying for underfunded public employee retirement benefits.
Under new rules that require public agencies to account for their unfunded pension liabilities, the state pension deficit could reach $250 billion, state Sen. John Moorlach, R-Costa Mesa, said in a Jan. 24 Orange County Register column.
That figure does not include the hundreds of cities, school districts, community college districts and utility districts, each with pension obligations, he said.
As the public agencies try to meet new requirements to fund that debt, they have less available for the services they are meant to provide, Weir said. That sends them to voters pleading for more money.
"We have to solve the problem," he said. "We can't continue to spiral into fiscal insolvency."
Pension woes driving down the cities? Maybe, maybe not, said a state expert.
"We have 482 cities, and it is hard to make a general statement," said Mike Coleman, a fiscal adviser for the League of California Cities and the California Society of Municipal Finance Officers.
"Each community is in a different place on pension and health benefits," he said.
And, until the final decisions come down, it won't be possible to say whether it will be an unusual election year.
Whatever happens, Weir said putting such a number of tax measures before voters would lead many to say, "Hell, I can't afford this," and vote no on all of them.