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Despite what they say, voters favor local taxes when they see direct community benefits

By Hannah Dreier

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Nov. 14 2012 11:03 a.m. MST

Paige Scharps, of Galena, Ill., exits a voting booth after filling out her ballot at the Vinegar Hill, Ill., Town Hall Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012.

Associated Press

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — When it comes to new taxes, voters tend to say government should ask for money from somebody else, like the rich. But that doesn't always hold true, especially on the local level.

During last week's elections, voters across the country opted to raise taxes to help their cities, counties and school districts.

"I'm OK with being taxed for making sure we don't go under and people are taken care of," said Elizabeth Boyd, 35, an independent voter in Sacramento. "I think it's really good for us to pay for schools and make sure they're kept open and teachers aren't being laid off for ridiculous reasons."

In California, 168 of the 240 local tax and bond measures on the Nov. 6 ballot won approval, a 70 percent pass rate. Those increases came in addition to voters passing statewide tax hikes championed by Gov. Jerry Brown. Ohio voters approved all local library taxes and a majority of local school bonds.

Voters in Alabama, Oklahoma and Colorado were among those also passing local tax increases.

Statewide tax measures did not fare as well. They failed in three of the five states where they were on the ballot. Even in California, statewide tax increases have failed far more often than they have passed.

Local revenue measures generally do better than statewide tax hikes, in part because voters feel more assured about how the money will be spent.

Anti-tax activists warn that voters who approved new fees will come to regret it.

Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, said people will "get sticker shock as to the total amount of tax burden they have. When you add them all up, they are going to start to wonder, 'What hit us?'"

He says some will come to realize "it would have been better to adopt certain reforms."

Voters seem to agree in theory, if not in practice.

National exit polling after the Nov. 6 elections showed that only 1 in 10 would welcome new income taxes for all Americans. And half of the electorate said the wealthy should pay more.

The "tax the other guy" mentality is dominant in polling in even in the most cash-strapped states, according to a 2010 study by the Pew Center on the States and the Public Policy Institute of California.

Despite those survey results, voters tend to have a more favorable opinion about increasing taxes when they can see that the extra revenue will benefit their community directly. A 2010 analysis by The Associated Press found that voters in a large cross-section of states passed 50 percent or more of the local tax initiatives that came before them.

Such numbers show that "citizens often want more spending —and are willing to pay for it — than the political leaders are willing to allow," said David Brunori, who studies state and local taxes as a professor of public policy at George Washington University.

And while a slew of voter-approved tax increases in a state such as California, where progressives have a stranglehold on politics at all levels, may not come as a shock, similar behavior in more conservative places is perhaps more telling.

Residents in Baldwin County, Ala., described as "very conservative" by school Superintendent Alan Lee, voted by nearly a two-thirds margin to renew a 1-cent-per-dollar sales tax for schools. Lee had threatened to close schools, eliminate hundreds of positions and cancel athletic programs if the tax renewal failed.

In Oklahoma, voters easily approved more than a dozen increases in local sales or property taxes. In the conservative Oklahoma City suburb of Moore, voters endorsed both property and sales tax increases to help fund parks and recreational facilities.

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