The attacks on Proposition 13 began within a few days after its overwhelming passage by California voters on June 6, 1978. Over the last three and half decades, this landmark taxpayer protection has been assailed in the legislature, the courts and by ballot initiatives sponsored by tax-and-spend interests. These assaults continue to this day.
In a development that has surprised taxpayer advocates and the business community, a new attack on Proposition 13 is quickly gaining traction. Filed as an initiative with the sympathetic title of “Lifting Children and Families Out of Poverty Act,” the proposal would impose a massive $6 billion property tax increase on both homeowners and business properties. Its primary backer is Conway Collis, a former member of the California Board of Equalization.
The fact that there is yet another attack on Proposition 13 is not much of a surprise. However, this proposal is as odd as it is dangerous. First, it is not being financed by the usual anti-Proposition 13 coalition of public sector unions and local government interests. Instead, the funding is coming from anti-poverty groups aligned with the Catholic Church, including the Daughters of Charity.
Second, in a strange political move, the proposal would impose its sliding scale of property tax increases – euphemistically labeled as “surcharges” – on residential properties as well as commercial real estate. Conventional wisdom in Sacramento has been that the most likely attack on Proposition 13 would be limited to commercial property with the imposition of a so-called “split roll” tax. (Proposition 13 maintained California’s historical tradition of taxing all real estate at the same rate. “Split roll” proposals – which remain a constant threat – would impose higher rates and/or different tax rules on business properties).
By imposing higher taxes on homes have the proponents made a political miscalculation? While it is true that, for now, the tax increase would only impact properties with a current assessed value in excess of $3 million, owners of average homes are fully aware that any breach in Proposition 13 could open the floodgates to more attacks that weaken their own protections. California homeowners, in other words, fully grasp the notion of “slippery slope” when it comes to attacks on Proposition 13.
By adopting a “go it alone” strategy without the usual left of center coalition, the proponents face the very real prospect of a broad opposition coalition. For example, public sector labor organizations are more focused on extending the Proposition 30 income tax increases. If they view the Conway Collis measure as a threat to their own interests they could very well oppose it or, worse yet, oppose it with significant money.
Moreover, it appears that the proponents haven’t fully comprehended how local government interests will react to the creation of a new state (not local) fund that would distribute the property tax proceeds generated by the new “surcharges.” It is likely that cities, counties and special districts will view this an unwanted intrusion into a primary source of their own funding.
The above are just a few of the problems with the Collis initiative. There are many more that will become evident as scrutiny from various political interests begins to intensify.
But one thing is certain. With the recent infusion of nearly a million dollars for the signature gathering effort, property owners need to take this threat very seriously. And while there is no guarantee that it will qualify for the 2016 ballot, anyone who values the protections afforded by Proposition 13 better not wait too long to prepare for a tough fight in November.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.