California’s First District Court of Appeal (“Court of Appeal”) has rejected arguments from business and tax groups challenging the validity of San Francisco’s Proposition C, the Early Care and Education initiative. The Court of Appeal held that citizen initiatives to enact a special tax only require a simple majority vote to pass, even if an elected official is involved in the citizen initiative process. This decision could be a game-changer in how tax measures are processed in the future, causing legislators to convert proposed tax measures into citizen-initiated measures, i.e. allowing politicians in California to use the citizen initiative’s simple majority vote requirement to avoid the more strenuous two-thirds supermajority vote local governments must obtain to increase taxes. San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera described the ruling as “a victory for voters and a victory for democracy.”
Proposition C, a citizen initiative, was approved by City of San Francisco voters on the June 5, 2018 ballot. This commercial rent tax was expected to raise up to $145 million annually for childcare and early education services by taxing business revenues from commercial space rentals by 3.5% and warehouse space rentals by 1% where receipts are over $1 million. Norman Yee, at the time a member of the City’s Board of Supervisors, was the driving force behind citizen initiative Proposition C. He completed the key steps required to put a citizen initiative on the ballot— he both turned in the signed initiative petition pages and signed the ballot arguments in support of Proposition C.
In San Francisco, there are two different ways special taxes are imposed: (1) local governments may present a special tax to the voters, but voters must approve the special tax by a super majority two-thirds vote, or (2) local citizen initiatives may present special taxes to the voters after receiving a threshold number of signatures. Citizen initiatives only require a simple majority vote to pass.
After Proposition C was approved by a 51% majority of voters, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association quickly joined forces with other business-related groups (“Plaintiffs”) to challenge the initiative, arguing the measure needed a two-thirds supermajority vote to pass because an elected district supervisor put forward the measure. Though the City has collected tax funds from businesses since the passage of the proposition, the money was not spent during the legal challenge. A San Francisco Superior Court judge rejected Plaintiffs’ arguments in July 2019. The decision was affirmed by the Court of Appeal on January 27, 2021. Now, Plaintiffs are planning to appeal the most recent decision to the California Supreme Court as the Court has not previously ruled on this issue.
The Court of Appeal adopted the reasoning of a recent case in another division of the same court, City and County of San Francisco v. All Persons Interested in the Matter of Proposition C (2020) 51 Cal.App.5th 701 (“All Persons”), to reject Plaintiffs’ appeal arguments. First, All Persons noted the initiative power is “one of the most precious rights” of the democratic process, so courts must both guard and liberally construe the exercise of the power. Accordingly, the court held Proposition 13 only requires governmental entities to gain two-thirds supermajority voter approval before imposing a special tax. Next, the court held Proposition 218, which requires a two-thirds supermajority when local government imposes a special tax, did not apply because the electorate is not “local government.” Finally, the court held that the City Charter did not require a two-thirds supermajority to pass a special tax because the Charter only creates substantive limits on the initiative power, not procedural limitations.
Plaintiffs argued their action challenging Proposition C was distinguishable from All Persons because Norman Yee was an elected official serving on the Board of Supervisors. The court rejected this argument, holding that Propositions 13 and 218 did not require a two-thirds vote to pass special taxes where an elected official was involved in the citizen initiative process. Plaintiffs will appeal to the California Supreme Court, noting this decision allows politicians in California to circumvent the two-thirds voter approval requirement for special taxes by turning special tax proposals into citizen initiative petitions.