What’s good for roads may be good for schools

In legislation modeled after California’s popular transportation half-cent sales tax programs, state Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, has introduced a bill that would let school districts into the action.

SB 1430 would permit two or more contiguous local school districts (K-12) within a county to form an education finance district and ask voters to tax themselves for a specific set of projects and programs. Potential taxes include sales, telephone or other utilities, parcel taxes or vehicle license fees.

The idea is similar to the half-cent transportation sales tax that voters have repeatedly embraced in Contra Costa and Alameda counties and elsewhere. The major difference is that transportation plans require two-thirds voter approval; this one calls for a simple majority.

Today, individual school districts can ask voters for parcel tax money but it requires two-thirds voter approval and bonds require 55 percent. (Statement corrected at 9:02 p.m. on 2/28/08.)

While voters generally dislike tax increases, they have been persuaded over the years to pass local measures earmarked for local projects and programs. Nearly half of California’s public investment in transportation now comes from local sales taxes and tolls.

“School districts could join together in a program that provides local accountability,” Torlakson said in an interview in his Sacramento office on Wednesday.

On the other hand, transportation interests may resist opening the door to education — always a high priority with voters — in what has been a relatively successful if hard-fought source of cash for road expansions, pothole money and public transit service.

What are the chances this bill will ever be signed into law?

It’s hard to say. The Legislature will be preoccupied for months as it copes with a gaping budget deficit.

But Torlakson chairs the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and after eight years in the Senate and four in the Assembly, he has many friends. Known for his persistence, he could also keep trying if he is successful in his planned 2010 election for state superintendent of schools.

Lisa Vorderbrueggen