Can a city threaten to remove police protection from you for voting to repeal a tax?

San Ramon, California

Police protection and other city services in California are funded in part by property taxes. But in a state where public employee salaries and pensions are hard to keep up with, some cities can’t live within the means which property taxes provide them. So they look for creative ways to extract more taxes from their residents, if possible without raising taxes on or reducing services to existing voters (who might respond at the ballot box).

BIA-Bay Area v. San Ramon, Slip Op at 10

In 2013 the City of San Ramon decided to increase its tax revenue using a loophole¬†that only required one person’s approval for a new parcel tax, but will nonetheless apply to the owners of every new home in the city. The owners of those new homes will get nothing special for their extra taxes; the city will provide them with the exact same services provided to owners of older homes.

BIA-Bay Area v. San Ramon, Slip Op at 7

Since California’s constitution guarantees the right of initiative, which can be used to repeal unpopular taxes, San Ramon included a poison pill in its new tax. If those who have to pay the get-you-nothing tax successfully repeal it, the City will withdraw their police protection and other municipal services, or impose the direct cost of police and other city staff salaries, benefits, and pensions on the homeowners.

The local home builders challenged this preemptive attack on taxpayers First Amendment rights in state court, but local judges saw no First Amendment harm in the poison pill. This week, Pacific Legal Foundation filed a petition asking the Supreme Court of the United States to hear this important free speech case.