Arcata residents heading to the polls next month will have a chance to vote on whether households with high electricity use should be taxed and whether they agree with the Supreme Court ruling that gives corporations the same rights as people.
Measure H, drafted by former City Councilman Dave Meserve and known as “Corps Ain't Peeps,” seeks to limit corporations' power within city limits without going against federal law and putting the city under legal scrutiny.
The ordinance reads: “To the full extent legally possible under federal and state law, and with the long term goal of changing any federal or state laws that may oppose this ordinance, within the City of Arcata, CA, corporations shall not have the rights of 'Persons' or 'The People' as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States, the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment.”
The measure is in response to Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission decision -- commonly referred to as “Citizens United” -- a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that rejected government limits on political spending by corporations and unions.
Move To Amend, a national movement coordinating grassroots opposition to the Supreme Court decision, offers a template initiative that has inspired more than 300 communities around the nation to enact similar resolutions, according to National Field Organizing Director Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap.
Sopoci-Belknap said the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors placed a similar initiative on its ballot this year, and that more traditionally Republican and blue collar communities have also passed similar laws.
”It definitely has been picking up steam,” she said. “I'm sure that Arcata will pass the measure.”
Meserve said more than 30 people have publicly endorsed the initiative, including Arcata Mayor Michael Winkler, Councilman Shane Brinton and Councilwoman Susan Ornelas.
”I had pretty much wholly positive responses from the people we've talked to,” Meserve said. “We're making a pretty strong statement.”
Saying that he is not a fan of long campaigns, Meserve expects to begin delivering lawn signs and advertising for the measure this week, focusing on the five weeks leading up to election day.
Meserve said he is confident that the wording protects the city from legal action, noting that City Attorney Nancy Diamond called it a declaratory statement.
In Diamond's review of the initiative, she wrote, “state law expressly defines a 'person' to include corporations as well as natural persons. The City of Arcata is required to operate in a manner consistent with State law, and, therefore, the City may not enact laws that seek to redefine a 'person' to exclude corporations from that definition.”
On Wednesday, the Arcata City Council voted 3-0-2 in favor of supporting Measure H. Councilman Mark Wheetley and Ornelas abstained, citing concerns about the council taking positions on local ballot measures.
The council did not vote on supporting Measure I -- which the council drafted and placed on November's ballot -- after citing similar concerns over the propriety of endorsing local ballot measures.
Arcata residents will also decide on Measure I, which would tax residents who exceed a Pacific Gas and Electric Company electricity usage baseline. Under the measure, high usage households that exceed the baseline by 600 percent would be charged an additional 45 percent of the electricity portion of a bill. There will be a medical baseline exemption to the tax. The tax will sunset in 12 years, if enacted.
The key issue is encouraging appropriate energy use, according to Environmental Services Deputy Director Karen Diemer.
”It's just such an enormous issue,” she said. “This one small component of it could really help.”
The city would have generated $1.2 million in revenue under the proposed tax in 2011, when more than 600 houses exceeded the proposed limit.
Diemer said PG&E is on track to implement the tax beginning the first of January, if it is approved by voters. PG&E estimated it would cost $600,000 to implement the tax.
”We haven't heard any revisions to that estimate,” Diemer said.
A primary target of the tax is illegal, residential indoor marijuana grows that use enormous amounts of energy.
Vice Mayor Shane Brinton said he has found a lot of anecdotal support for the measure in his interactions with the public.
”I'm feeling relatively good about it, at this point,” Brinton said. “I am a strong supporter of Measure I.”
Brinton said he had some concerns about the way the tax will appear on the ballot.
”The percentage looks very large, but for most Arcata electricity users the tax won't even be charged,” he said, adding that he advocated for a cent-per-kilowatt charge.
A percentage charge was determined to be the most straightforward for PG&E, Brinton said, and the city needed its buy-in in order for the tax to work.
Cliff Chapman of the Humboldt Taxpayer's League said his organization hasn't taken an official stance on the measure, but he had concerns about the tax.
”Where does it stop?” Chapman asked. “They're trying to solve a law enforcement issue with taxation.”
Brinton said he hopes the initiative will spur other communities with indoor growing problems to take similar action, and the city of Eureka recently asked its Energy Commission to look into forming a similar initiative.
Eureka Councilwoman Linda Atkins said she was concerned that the tax would cause Arcata growers to move to Eureka to avoid the additional electricity costs.
By that time, she said, Eureka could vote on a similar measure, and the city will have seen if Arcata's initiative passed and how it was implemented.
”I do expect it to pass,” Atkins said. “I think that most people are kind of tired of grow houses in their neighborhoods.”
Diemer said residents concerned about whether the tax will affect them should bring their PG&E bill into the Department of Environmental Services, or call 822-8184. She said there has been very little inquiry about the tax.
”(Environmental Services) only had a few walk-in citizens come in and ask some basic questions,” Diemer said.
For more information visit www.cityofarcata.org, or the Measure H website at www.corps-aint-peeps.org. To find out if the electricity tax would affect your household, visit the Department of Environmental Services or call 822-8184 with a recent energy bill ready.