SACRAMENTO, Calif - A California taxpayer group vowed on Tuesday to push for tougher voting standards on local benefit assessments, while a state legislative committee seemed to lean toward less drastic reforms.

Legislation next year will probably target some sort of standardization for the state's patchwork quilt of assessment laws, state Sen. Marian Bergeson, R-Newport Beach and chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Local Government, concluded at a hearing Tuesday on assessments, taxes, and fees.

Legislators also may tackle the issue of so-called indirect assessments. Some critics say these are an end run around voting requirements that Proposition 13 imposed on special taxes, Bergeson said.

Market participants are monitoring the reform efforts because assessments for capital improvements often secure bond issues.

Jonathan Coupal, director of legal affairs for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, testified that his group will continue to push for sterner voting requirements. The current assessment system generally calls for an election only if a specified percentage of voters protest a proposed assessment.

Legislation that was introduced this year, including the so-called home owner's relief bill, will be pressed again in 1994, Coupal said.

The association will support attempts "to return to the taxpayer the duty to vote" on many revenue-raising mechanisms, he said. Coupal said the problem is not with traditional assessments, which have been around for a century and finance purposes such as streets and sewers.

Rather, he questioned what he called "the new breed of assessments" that are branching out for purposes such as park operations. The newer uses "bear little resemblance with the traditional assessments of past years," Coupal said.

Coupal said the Jarvis association intends to pursue a statewide voter initiative if the Legislature fails to impose stricter voting requirements on assessments and other revenue-raising mechanisms.

While the Jarvis group seems willing to wait and see how the Legislature handles the issue, another taxpayer group is poised to pursue an initiative that would have far-reaching consequences for all sorts of public debt.

Richard L. Gann, president of an antitax watchdog group, yesterday said he will seek petition signatures to put an initiative on California's November 1994 ballot that would require voter approval of "all forms of taxes and liabilities."

The initiative would require state or local governments to seek voter approval for all short-term and long-term financings, including certificates of participation, and for all fees and assessments, Gann said in a telephone interview.

Gann is son of the late Paul Gann, an activist who helped devise and pass Proposition 13 in 1978. His group has until June 30 to submit signatures of 615,958 registered voter to county election officials for verification, according to a spokeswoman for California Secretary of State March Fong Eu.

Gann, president of the Sacramento-based Paul Gann's Citizens Committee, said he planned to submit a 10-page declaration summary of the initiative, titled "The Taxpayers Consent Act," to the secretary of state's office by late yesterday. Submitting the summary is the first step required for circulation of initiative petitions under state law.

The proposal would amend the California Constitution to eliminate all forms of "non-voter approved debt," and would require either a simple majority or two-thirds vote for state or local governments to issue "liabilities" in excess of 300,000, Gann said.

Such "liabilities include, but are not limited to, general obligation bonds, tax anticipation notes, revenue bonds, tax assessment bonds, and certificates of participation," he said.

However, Gann said, "last-minute fine-tuning" of the summary could change a draft version, which currently says, "No local government and special districts shall incur long-term debt without a two-thirds vote of the people."

The voter requirement could be reduced to simple majority in most cases, with the exception of "any debt or liability that would be levied against real property - and that debt would require a two-thirds vote," Gann said.

"The majority of our objections is to debt that there is not a vote on," Gann said. "It is not our intention to shut down government - we want them to work within reasonable guidelines."

At Tuesday's hearing, Bergeson agreed on the importance of protecting taxpayers. But she stressed that such protection must be balanced against the need to provide infrastructure for economic development.

Other legislators on the committee, along with many who testified, appeared cool to Coupal's call for increased election requirements.

The California Association of Realtors has grappled with this issue and at one time even considered an initiative to clamp down on assessments, testified Burt McChesney, a legislative advocate for the group.

But the realtors association eventually decided it was better to "encourage more local participation rather than tie the hands of local officials," McChesney said.

Bergeson and many who testified generally agreed on the need for accountability. "The public wants to know what the bottom line is," Bergeson said.

Many speakers favored refining rather than overhauling the current system of public involvement.

"It seems to me the notice requirements are the key to public involvement," testified Dan Wall, legislative representative for the California State Association of Counties.

Arto Becker, a partner at Hawkins, Delafield & Wood and president-elect of the California Association of Bond Lawyers, said "adequate safeguards" already exist when districts impose assessments for operating and maintenance purposes. "No legislation is needed in this area," especially because assessments are not widely used for these purposes, Becker said.

McChesney said he hoped "everybody would back off" and wait until a constitutional revision commission can take a comprehensive look at the state's entire taxing system.

Bergeson responded, however, that she believes some solutions are needed before that commission completes its work in 1995.

Sam Geopp, general manager of the Valley-Wide Recreation and Park District in Riverside County, said he would support attempts to standardize assessment law to provide a consistent threshold of voter protests - possibly 10% - that would trigger an election.

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