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Voting on public power: Proposition 16 ensures taxpayers’ choice

California is hurting. State and local governments have tallied up a whopping $145 billion in debt, and the hits just keep on coming.  The California Employment Development Department notes that more than one in 10 Californians have lost their jobs.  Many local areas have been forced to cut critical human services – police, fire and public works – and are either eliminating jobs or placing valued public employees on furlough. Every day we see more and more stories on the local news about how our leaders worry about ways to make every dollar stretch a little bit farther.

That’s why it’s shocking to me that local leaders would want to pump millions of taxpayer dollars into risky new business ventures without taxpayer input or approval. It’s also why we urgently need to pass Prop 16, the Taxpayers Right to Vote Act.

Private utilities in California – like San Diego Gas & Electric (SDGE), Southern California Edison (SCE) and Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) –support local governments through the property taxes and franchise fees they pay into general funds.  City, county and state governments use general funds revenues to support public safety, fire and police protection, and other critical local services.  In 2008, PG&E paid $267 million into these general funds; SCE and SDGE contributed $232 million and $158 million respectively. Anything that reduces these funds or shrinks the tax base will have a direct effect on a municipality’s financial health, which affects public services and, ultimately, jobs.

The way things currently stand, local leaders don’t have to ask taxpayers if it’s okay to sink millions of dollars – their dollars – into developing new retail electricity ventures. These ventures represent a high level of risk because if they fail, the taxpayers are on the hook for a bailout, which could take the form of new taxes, higher taxes or more job cuts to cover the loss. Money that could be used to pay for critical public services, fund important public works projects or protect municipal jobs is instead being used as start-up money for risky new retail electricity ventures. Without asking the taxpayers – who provides this money – local leaders are spending millions of dollars to build new bureaucracies and keep them running while they hope they make a profit.

Prop 16 changes that – it empowers voters to approve public investments in new municipal electricity businesses–just like they have the power to make decisions on other important uses of taxpayer dollars.  It’s a simple idea, built on California’s history, but an important one.

Detractors of Prop 16 want you to believe that this initiative will somehow affect the development of renewable power or “clean” energy – which is false.  Renewable energy projects are specifically exempt from the voter approval requirements described in this initiative.  Prop 16 has one – and only one – goal: to give voters a say in how their local leaders spend their money. This ballot initiative has no effect whatsoever on the development of renewable energy projects in California.

Prop 16 fixes a loophole in the current law so that taxpayers have the right to approve the investment of their public dollars or public debt in the startup of retail electricity businesses, much like they do with other local government fiscal decisions. The two-thirds majority vote required by Prop 16 is no different than existing requirements for other local special tax and bond measures that Californians vote on regularly. Opponents of Prop 16 would love for you to believe this measure is complicated when, in fact, the concept behind it is quite simple – it empowers California taxpayers, giving them a say in whether local leaders can invest tax dollars or take on additional debt that may plague them for years to come.

Don’t let certain local leaders get away with making risky investments with taxpayer dollars – our dollars. Support Prop 16, the Taxpayers Right to Vote Act, and ensure you have a voice in how your local governments spend your money.


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