It was supposed to be a scary year for government to go asking voters for more money. The economy is in bad shape. Voters are angry. Republicans took over the House. The Tea Party challenged the establishment.
California voters, however, provided a mixed bag of results on taxes, fees and bonds -- making it hard to peer into voters' minds on money matters this election season.
City, county and special district tax and fee measures fared about as well on Nov. 2 as they have for the last decade, while school measures fared slightly worse, according to an analysis by the League of California Cities.
Voters in Contra Costa and Alameda counties approved 20 of the 30 financial ballot measures floated by cities, schools and special districts, with a Knightsen school bond measure still too close to call. That's a 67 percent approval rate, compared with an 81 percent approval rate two years ago.
Voters fretted over the economy, but were influenced even more by their attitudes about the local government that asked for money and the particular fee or tax before them, political observers said.
Voters are more selective in hard times, said state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord.
"If people feel government is providing them good value and spending its money wisely on roads, police and services, they will reward them by saying, 'We know it's a time tough, and we'll give you a little bit more money,' " DeSaulnier said. "But if they don't have confidence in government and the way money is spent, they're not going to support it."
California voters shot down the only state fee before them -- an $18 per car annual fee to pay for state parks.
"The mood of California is probably not quite as anti-tax as the rest of the nation," said Jaime Regalado, director of the Edmund G. "Pat" Brown Institute of Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles.
In local elections, voters approved half-cent sales tax increases in Concord, Union City, El Cerrito and Tracy, and a quarter-cent tax in San Leandro, but rejected a sales tax increase in Antioch.
Utility user tax measures were approved in Albany and Newark, but denied in Pleasant Hill, Pinole and Oakland.
Concord Mayor Guy Bjerke said city voters approved the increase to ward off further service cuts in part because the city starting making workers contribute toward their pensions.
In adjacent Pleasant Hill, the city's utility tax increase lost because the city doesn't make municipal employees contribute toward their pensions, said Jack Weir, a newcomer who was the top voter getter in the City Council election.
"It's unfair to ask our residents to sacrifice if city employees weren't contributing something significant toward their pensions," Weir said.
A fiscal policy adviser for the League of California Cities said he wasn't surprised so many local fee and bond measures passed, because the same thing happened in 2008 when the economy already was in trouble.
"Politics is local," said the adviser, Michael Coleman."If you know the people and the issues, and you see on an every day basis how money is being spent, that becomes very tangible to you."
Statewide, local voters passed 50 of 79 simple-majority taxes in cities, counties or special districts. That's a 63 percent passage rate, slightly down from the 65 percent rate for measures since 2001.
California voters also approved 13 of the 31 special taxes requiring two-thirds approval. The passage rate was 42 percent compared to 46 percent for measures since 2001, Coleman reported.
School measures had a tougher time. Forty six of 63 school bond measures passed -- a 73 percent passage rate, compared to the historic rate of 80 percent.
Only two of 18 school parcel taxes -- in Fremont and Berkeley -- passed in California. School parcel taxes require two-thirds voter approval, while school bonds require a 55 percent majority vote.
One California anti-tax leader said many local tax and bond measures pass because of political and financial support from special interest groups such as employee unions and building contractors.
"You have no funded opponents for these measures," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. "Local taxpayer groups don't have the money."
Howard Jarvis and other taxpayer groups also contend some local governments are illegally passing measures that should require two-thirds rather than simple majority approval.
Proposition 26, approved Tuesday, has language that could force more local ballot measures to obtain two-thirds approval -- depending on how the measure is interpreted in court.
The Howard Jarvis group is considering suing to challenge the legality of the $10 per car annual fees passed in five Bay area counties. Those measure sought simple majority, but the taxpayer group argues the fee is a tax that should be subject to two-thirds approval.
The car fees passed in Alameda, Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Francisco and Marin counties, and were rejected in Contra Costa and Sonoma counties.
But one proponent of the car fee said its passage proves that taxpayers will support measures that will provide benefits they can see. The Alameda County fee passed because it will deliver the tangible results of fewer potholes and road cracks that cause costly repairs for car owners on axles and alignments, said Art Dao, executive director of the Alameda County Transportation Authority.
"Sixty percent of the revenue will go to local roads," Dao said.
Jack O'Connell, state Superintendent for Public Instruction, said the majority of California school bond measures passed because voters want to improve local schools, even in tough economic times.
"Californians voted to invest in their schools and their children's futures," he said.
Staff writers Mike Taugher and Theresa Harrington contributed to this story. Contact Denis Cuff at 925-943-8267. Read the Capricious Commuter at www.ibabuzz.com/transportation/. Follow him at Twitter.com/deniscuff.
Still TOO CLOSE
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