California Supermajority Tax Challenge Cases are Onto the Next Level: Last Trial Court Ruling Issued

A San Francisco trial court judge has ruled that Proposition G, a parcel tax to fund educational purposes that passed with a 60.76% vote in 2018, is a valid voter initiative that did not require a two-thirds supermajority vote like local special taxes introduced by mayors or local boards of supervisors.  The same deciding judge already issued a pair of rulings in favor of San Francisco last July on similar supermajority vote validity-challenging actions concerning San Francisco’s Homelessness Gross Receipts Tax and Early Care and Education Commercial Rents Tax.  Both previous rulings are currently under separate appeals in the First District Court of Appeal.

All three trial court rulings rely heavily on the California Supreme Court’s August 2017 opinion in Cannabis Coalition v. City of Upland (“Upland”).  See our previous postings discussing the Upland decision and its unintentional but widespread ongoing repercussions.  In Upland, the California Supreme Court held local measures introduced by voter initiatives were not required to be presented to the electorate in a general election but could be presented in a special election instead.  The Court also included a direct assertion in the opinion indicating its narrow holding does not affect the longstanding constitutional requirement that all local special taxes must receive a two-thirds supermajority vote to be valid, regardless of their method of introduction.  Notwithstanding this direct assertion in Upland, as well as both related case opinions and an over-forty year history of reiterated voter intent to strictly adhere to the supermajority requirement, the San Francisco trial court ruled the supermajority requirement does not apply to local special taxes introduced by voter initiative.  In the most recent ruling, the trial court judge dismissed arguments that the California Constitution and/or San Francisco Charter required otherwise, or that local government officials improperly coordinated to use the voter initiative process to sidestep the two-thirds supermajority voting requirement.

In contrast to the rulings issued by the San Francisco trial court, judges in both Fresno and Alameda trial courts issued rulings last year invalidating local special taxes that received simple majority but not two-thirds supermajority voter approval in the cities of Fresno and Oakland.  Both rulings emphasized rather than disregarded the long and consistent history supporting application of California’s supermajority requirement to all local special taxes.  These two rulings are also currently on appeal in, respectively, the Fifth and First District Courts of Appeal.

With all five supermajority tax challenge cases now ruled on at the trial court level, time will soon tell how the issue will fare at California’s first level of judicial appeal.

The ruling is attached.