LOS ANGELES - City officials in California expressed interest yesterday in ideas ranging from a state constitutional convention to a ballot initiative as ways to protect local revenues from state raids.
They believe such bolder strategies may be necessary after California last month cut cities' property tax receipts by $200 million to help balance the state's fiscal 1993 budget. California diverted the money to school districts, thereby lessening the amount the state must provide in that area.
Because of local concern over such actions, the League of California Cities at its 94th annual conference yesterday sponsored a roundtable forum of about 300 officials to study potential solutions.
Among other things, the officials discussed the possibility of a ballot initiative aimed at providing constitutional protection for municipal revenues.
Officials appeared divided over whether a statewide ballot initiative would help their cause. But there was general sentiment at the forum that cities must counter state actions that have chipped away at their revenue base in recent years.
A resolution - one of 30 under consideration by the league's members - proposed considering the feasibility of a statewide ballot initiative that barred the state from reducing or redistributing municipal revenues. The result of the vote on that resolution was unavailable late yesterday.
But a small sampling of opinion from the roundtable discussion produced mixed reactions to an initiative strategy.
Some officials voiced concern that a constitutional amendment could lead to a situation in which cities were boxed in with an inflexible formula.
And Hal Conklin, mayor pro tem of Santa Barbara and the league's 1991-1992 president, opened the forum by observing that a ballot initiative "can be a double-edged sword." For one thing, he warned, taking on the state with a ballot proposal generally invites "some form of retribution" from disgruntled state politicians.
Jim Harrington, assistant director of policy for the league, said in a separate interview that crafting an initiative is difficult because "it is almost impossible to write one that is airtight." A constitutional amendment might address some concerns, but could also raise other unanticipated problems, he explained.
City officials attending the forum reacted somewhat more favorably to the notion that California must reorganize its entire structure pertaining to local revenue allocations.
Many in the audience reacted with applause after one official suggested California is ripe for a state constitutional convention to sort out such issues.
Staffers for the league plan in coming weeks to explore possible alternatives for expressing the cities' concerns.
The process may simply result in a more concerted and effective lobbying program" at the state level, Harrington said. Some city officials echoed that idea, saying the league should first work on educating legislators before resorting to options such as a ballot initiative.
Harrington said "it's a real dilemma" because state law clearly gives legislators the power to determine how property taxes are allocated. And even if cities found a way to protect their revenues, "they'll get you one way or another" because the state can also shift more costs to the local level.
The problem, according to Harrington, is a blurring in the distinction between state and local revenues and programs.
The state, for example, is constitutionally barred from levying a property tax for its own general fund purposes, he noted. But he argued that the state in fact has an effective levy when it can shift local property taxes to schools and thereby avoid certain funding responsibility.
"What we need is some accountability" so voters know where various funds end up, Harrington said.
Moody's Investors Service noted in a recent report that long-term credit concerns persist for cities in California, partly because of their exposure as potential funding sources to help solve state budget problems.