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Caltrain tax legal opinion

Caltrain tax legal opinion

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July 21, 2020
VIA EMAIL
Jim Hartnett
San Mateo County Transit District
hartnettj@samtrans.com
Dear San Mateo County Transit District Board Members:
As Special Counsel to the San Mateo County Transit District, I was tasked with looking
at SB 797, the recent California law that provides a unique opportunity for Caltrain to submit a
one-eighth cent sales tax measure to the voters to support our vital local train service. However,
the one thing that is clear is that it must be a clean ballot proposal requiring that “the net
revenues from the tax” must “be used by the board for the operating and capital purposes of the
Caltrain rail services.”
Simply put, the law means the political bodies needing to approve the ballot measure
must not impose collateral or delaying conditions on use of the funds. Thus, the law prohibits
linking the straightforward fiscal measure designed to save Caltrain to unrelated—even if
salutary—organizational or other objectives. Specifically, it is my strong opinion that larding
approval with requirements of changed governance or targeted or restricted spending
requirements will render the tax subject to a successful taxpayer legal challenge.
Importantly, there is nothing that prevents the three members of the JPA from continuing
their separate discussions about organizational change and management structure. Plainly,
however, the California Legislature was saying you can do that, just don’t tie such political
negotiations to the overall economic wellbeing of the railway.
Very truly yours,
James M. Wagstaffe

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Caltrain tax legal opinion

  • 1. July 21, 2020 VIA EMAIL Jim Hartnett San Mateo County Transit District hartnettj@samtrans.com Dear San Mateo County Transit District Board Members: As Special Counsel to the San Mateo County Transit District, I was tasked with looking at SB 797, the recent California law that provides a unique opportunity for Caltrain to submit a one-eighth cent sales tax measure to the voters to support our vital local train service. However, the one thing that is clear is that it must be a clean ballot proposal requiring that “the net revenues from the tax” must “be used by the board for the operating and capital purposes of the Caltrain rail services.” Simply put, the law means the political bodies needing to approve the ballot measure must not impose collateral or delaying conditions on use of the funds. Thus, the law prohibits linking the straightforward fiscal measure designed to save Caltrain to unrelated—even if salutary—organizational or other objectives. Specifically, it is my strong opinion that larding approval with requirements of changed governance or targeted or restricted spending requirements will render the tax subject to a successful taxpayer legal challenge. Importantly, there is nothing that prevents the three members of the JPA from continuing their separate discussions about organizational change and management structure. Plainly, however, the California Legislature was saying you can do that, just don’t tie such political negotiations to the overall economic wellbeing of the railway. Very truly yours, James M. Wagstaffe