Oakland Mayor Schaaf Promises to Fight Ballot Replacement to Measure AA

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf speaks to students at Edna Brewer Middle School about the U.S. Constitution on Jan. 19, 2018, in Oakland. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said Thursday she wants the courts to decide the legality of a contentious parcel tax rather than put a replacement measure on the 2020 ballot, and she says she’ll fight any effort to water down the original measure.

Measure AA, on the November 2018 ballot, aimed to raise $30 million annually for early childhood education for 30 years. But it has been mired in controversy after the City Council voted to certify its passage last December. The measure received only 62 percent of the vote, but election material given to voters prior to the election stated two-thirds voter approval was required for passage.

The city was then hit by a lawsuit in February by several homeowners and landlords and the Jobs and Housing Coalition, a business lobbying group. The Coalition’s CEO, Greg McConnell,  argues that Measure AA is illegal because it failed to meet the higher voting threshold requirement.

“We think it’s important that the voters trust the process,” McConnell said.

In response to the lawsuit, the City Council voted this week to postpone collecting the tax, infuriating Schaaf, who strongly backed the measure. Schaaf said she would continue to fight for Oakland’s low-income children and their right to a college education and “oppose any effort that attempts to sell them out.”

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Schaaf and other supporters of Measure AA argue that citizen-based tax measures should need only a simple majority. It’s a novel interpretation of a state law requiring the two-thirds threshold for ballot initiatives seeking to raise taxes for specific needs.

A state Supreme Court ruling in 2017 opened up the possibility that a citizens' initiative like Oakland’s Measure AA could become law with a simple majority vote. There's a similar legal dispute in San Francisco over Proposition C, which proposed to raise business taxes to pay for homeless services, that's currently in the courts.

Councilwoman Sheng Thao said a court ruling backing the lower threshold would be great, but that “it’s important to maintain the voters' trust and the integrity of the process.”

She said the legal fight could be long, and in the meantime city officials should start considering how to craft a new measure to break the two-thirds requirement. She suggested the possibility of collecting the tax over fewer years or lowering the $198 annual tax on single-family homes.

The City Council is due to meet April 30 to consider an agreement with business groups to pause the lawsuit for one year while lawmakers consider a separate measure for the 2020 ballot. But the Coalition’s McConnell said they won’t dismiss the suit yet.

“We have to keep our lawsuit active and pending to ensure that the city does in fact try and come up with something that is agreeable,” he said.

Schaaf said the move by the council serves to placate the landlords and developers trying to kill Measure AA.

“Our kids deserve 30 years of support ... and so this idea of trying to appease everyone and change nothing — that is what compromises trust in government,” Schaaf said.

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