So, I was looking over the ballot language for our latest school parcel tax, Measure E, and it’s just confusing enough that it’s unlikely to survive a court challenge should someone decide to sue after it passes.
And yes, I expect it to pass despite the fact it needs a two-thirds majority.
According to the Official Sample Ballot sent to me by the Yolo County Elections Office, the measure reads as follows: “To offset the continued loss of significant state funding, shall the Davis Joint Unified School District be authorized to continue a special tax for a period of 4 years not to exceed the base annual rate of $20.00 per dwelling unit for multi-dwelling parcels and $204.00 per parcel for all other parcels, and levy up to an additional $242 to cover State funding shortfalls ONLY if the November 2012 Temporary Taxes to Fund Education initiative does not pass?”
Now, I know what the authors of this measure meant to say, but they crammed so many propositions into one sentence that the actual meaning is lost. At best, it’s subject to two or three separate interpretations, and at worst, the flaw is so certainly fatal it won’t matter if the measure passes or not.
What the authors were trying to say was that a “Yes” vote would create a $204 per parcel tax no matter what happens with Prop. 30, but that if Prop. 30 fails, the same “Yes” vote would also authorize another $242 tax, in addition to the $204, for a grand total of $446.
Unfortunately for the district, that’s not what the measure asks. And the “you know what I meant to say” argument won’t hold water in a court of law if and when someone challenges this.
The fatal word here is “and,” which makes both the $204 tax and the $242 tax dependent upon the failure of Proposition 30.
What you have here are three separate issues vying for our attention. Item A is the $204 tax, Item B is the $242 tax and Item C is Prop. 30.
Measure E very clearly links the fates of Items A and B with the passage or rejection of Item C. There’s simply no way around it.
Some will argue that a comma between the words “parcels” and “and” separates Item A from Item B, but it does no such thing. The clearest meaning of the measure as written, assuming a two-thirds “Yes” vote, is that both A and B pass if Prop. 30 fails, and both A and B fail if Prop. 30 passes.
The district’s website notes that “If California voters approve Prop. 30 and Davis voters approve Measure E, Davis residents will not pay the component of Measure E that protects against additional state funding cuts.” Clarifying statements on the district’s website, however, have absolutely no legal standing.
It’s the ballot language, and the ballot language alone, that’s relevant.
It would be entirely reasonable for a voter to assume he’s voting “Yes” on both local taxes only if the state initiative fails, and that he’s off the hook completely on both local taxes if the state measure passes.
Just for fun, let’s substitute food for taxes and see what happens.
Suppose the statement said “We will have steak, and corn for dinner ONLY if dad doesn’t find potatoes.”
The district would have us believe that that means we’ll have either steak and corn or steak and potatoes, when in reality it means that if dad does find potatoes, we will not have steak or corn, only potatoes.
Or, let’s try this: “Shall the City of Davis be authorized to spend 32.3 billion dollars to bring fresh water from the Columbia River in Oregon, and an additional 14.8 billion dollars to bring water from the Snake River in Idaho ONLY if California voters fail to ease clean water restrictions prior to Jan. 1, 2016?”
Again, the district would have you believe the “ONLY” refers only to the Snake River, when in reality it refers to both.
That word “ONLY,” especially in all caps, is hard to ignore.
Or, for those who like road trips: “We will visit Yellowstone National Park, and Glacier ONLY if we don’t run out of gas.” Again, both destinations are dependent on not running out of gas.
Both the $204 tax and the $242 tax come into existence ONLY if Prop. 30 fails. Both are dependent on Prop. 30’s failure. It doesn’t matter what you meant to say, it matters only what you actually said.
Instead of trying to cram several eventualities into one inelegant sentence, the district should have divided this up into two separate measures.
Measure A should have said “Shall the Davis Joint Unified School District be authorized to continue a special tax for a period of 4 years not to exceed the base annual rate of $20.00 per dwelling unit for multi-dwelling parcels and $204 per parcel for all other parcels?”
Measure B should have said “Without regard to Measure A, shall the Davis Joint Unified School District be authorized to levy up to $242 ONLY if the November 2012 Temporary Taxes to Fund Education initiative does not pass?”
Not only would two separate votes be clear and unambiguous, it would also give voters more choices than now exist.
After all, there may be some voters who feel $204 is as far as they’re willing to go, no matter what happens with Prop. 30. There may be others who are inclined to vote “No” on the $204, but would be willing to vote “Yes” on $242 if state funding fails. And there may well be voters who would vote “Yes” on both measures or “No” on both measures.
The one essential element for any ballot measure is clarity. Sadly for those of us inclined to vote in favor of both parcel taxes, this measure fails the “clarity” test and, as such, is open to several interpretations and, ultimately, a legal challenge.
— Reach Bob Dunning at email@example.com