Special taxes and voter approval

August 07, 2014 | By DAMIEN SCHIFF

This week, the California Court of Appeal, in City of San Diego v. Shapiro, overturned a special tax approved by the City of San Diego to help finance a potential expansion of the San Diego Convention Center.  The tax was approved not by the City’s electorate but rather by the owner and lessees of land that would be subject to the special tax.  The court of appeal ruled that the tax should have been presented to the City’s full electorate.  California Constitution Article XIIIA requires that all new special taxes (i.e., taxes levied for a specific purpose) be approved by two-thirds of the “qualified electors” of the locality, whereas Article XIIIC requires that special taxes be approved by two-thirds of the “electorate.”  The court of appeal interpreted these provisions to mean “registered voters,” regardless of any property qualification.  Hence, the City’s special tax, having been approved by landowners not by registered voters, was illegal.  It remains to be seen whether the court’s decision means that special taxes can never be levied constitutionally through special districts if the districts are undeveloped and thus lack registered voters.