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Voters Have the Power to Change this 150-year-old Tax Law

February 20, 2024

When a California municipality, like a city or a town, needs to pass a funding bond to build a new school, 55% of voters need to approve it. But if that same municipality needs funding for an affordable housing project or public transportation, more than two-thirds of voters need to say yes.

This rule was established in 1879, before the age of corporate special interests, viral social media videos, and multi-million dollar advertising campaigns. And the impact has been felt strongly by our communities in the past three years alone:

  • A $650 million bond to build affordable housing and repair infrastructure in Berkeley failed despite getting 60% of the vote.
  • A new sales tax proposal in Sonoma County to raise money for wildfire prevention earned 65% of the vote but failed.
  • An occupancy tax to pay for new police and fire services failed despite getting 61% of the vote in Lompoc. 

This November, voters will have a chance to change this two-thirds threshold with a vote on Assembly Constitutional Amendment 1 (ACA 1).

About ACA1

ACA 1 would change the threshold for passing special municipality taxes from two-thirds to 55%, just as school bonds have now. To increase accountability for the funds, the amendment would mandate annual audits of how money is used and create citizen oversight committees to track spending.

Supporters of the amendment – which include dozens of local government associations and advocacy groups – point to the housing crisis that California is facing. Currently, California is facing a million-unit housing shortage. More than 22% of the nation’s unhoused population lives in the state. And rent has skyrocketed – Santa Barbara saw a 40% increase in average rent since 2020, while Los Angeles saw a 21% hike. Cities need funds to create affordable housing programs and build structures to mitigate the problem.

But in a ten-year span, more than half of California’s funding proposals failed when put to voters due to the two-thirds margin requirement. If the 55% threshold had been in place, nearly 80% would have passed.

Opponents of ACA 1, including the California Chamber of Commerce, argue that if municipalities are allowed to more easily implement new taxes, the cost of living will go up and increase the burden on working families. There is concern that sales tax increases will increase costs throughout the supply chain. They argue that California is already one of the most expensive states to live in, and the California Taxpayers Association estimates $250 million in increased taxes every election cycle as a result.

What ACA1 Would Impact

If passed, ACA 1 wouldn’t just impact housing – it would address other infrastructure needs, including the strained water supply. ACA 1 defines “public infrastructure” to include:  

  • Projects to provide water or protect water quality, sanitary sewer, treat wastewater, or reduce pollution from stormwater runoff;   
  • Protect property from impacts of sea level rise;   
  • Public buildings, including fire and police facilities;  
  • Parks, open space, and recreation facilities;  
  • Improvements to transit and streets and highways;  
  • Flood control;  
  • Public library facilities;  
  • Broadband expansion in underserved areas;  
  • Local hospital construction;  
  • Public safety buildings, facilities, and equipment;  
  • and Public library facilities. 

ACA 1 has to pass with two-thirds majorities in the California Assembly and Senate to reach the ballot, which is why it has taken more than 20 years to make it. In an ever-polarized society and with millions in corporate advertising bombarding voters, the days of passing anything by 67% are likely behind us – but voters will have the chance to decide on ACA 1 by a majority vote in the fall.