Less than two weeks ago, radical progressives in the California Legislature launched the most brazen sneak attack on California’s iconic Proposition 13 in its 45-year history. Assemblyman Christopher Ward, backed by the new Speaker of the Assembly, Robert Rivas, introduced Assembly Constitutional Amendment 13 (ACA 13). It would amend the constitution to make it easier to raise taxes, by making it harder to pass citizens’ initiatives that seek to enforce Proposition 13’s two-thirds vote requirement for local special tax increases.
The specific target of ACA 13 is a citizens’ initiative backed both by taxpayer organizations and the business community. The Taxpayer Protection and Government Accountability Act (TPA) has already qualified for the November 2024 ballot, and polling shows it to be popular with voters. The TPA closes several loopholes created by the courts that have allowed special interests to work with local governments to raise taxes with a simple majority vote instead of the two-thirds vote required by Proposition 13.
For example, the California Supreme Court’s infamous Upland decision in 2017 turned 40 years of Prop. 13 jurisprudence on its head by suggesting that a citizens’ initiative could raise taxes without a two-thirds vote. The TPA ends that game.
The TPA would also provide unprecedented transparency when tax-hike measures are on the ballot, allowing voters to know what these propositions will cost them. In other words, TPA is a threat to the status quo by effectively restoring taxpayer rights.
This column has repeatedly exposed the legislature’s hostility to the tools of direct democracy. Weakening the recall power, increasing the cost to initiate a statute, changing the meaning of a referendum vote so that a “no” vote means “yes,” are all proposals to deprive citizens of political power. But these direct democracy powers remain popular with the voting public – for good reason.
Since 1911, Californians have possessed powerful tools to control indolent or corrupt politicians. The rights of direct democracy – initiative, referendum, and recall – are enshrined in the California Constitution for reasons that are just as compelling in 2023 as they were more than a century ago.
There are two ways to amend the constitution in California. The legislature can put a proposed amendment on the ballot, or citizens can collect signatures for an initiative constitutional amendment. Either way, once on the ballot, constitutional amendments pass with a simple majority vote, and always have in California, since 1849.
But ACA 13 would change that. Legislative constitutional amendments would still pass with a simple majority, but a citizens’ initiative constitutional amendment that requires a two-thirds vote for tax increases, such as Proposition 13 in 1978, would require a two-thirds vote to pass. Even Prop. 13 itself narrowly missed that threshold.
As noted above, the real target of ACA 13 is the Taxpayer Protection and Government Accountability Act. If approved by voters in November 2024, TPA will restore the original intent of several voter-approved taxpayer protection initiatives including Prop. 13, Prop. 218, and Prop. 26, all of which have been weakened by a tax-hungry legislature and a hostile judiciary.
Because the TPA initiative restores the two-thirds vote protection of Proposition 13, under ACA 13, it would have to be approved by a two-thirds vote of the statewide electorate. That is obviously more difficult to achieve and may leave taxpayers stuck paying the price for courts eroding Proposition 13.
Notably, California’s current Constitution (the California Constitution of 1879), as ratified by the voters on May 7, 1879, by a simple majority vote, contained at least two provisions requiring two-thirds voter approval including the requirement that local bonds be approved by “the assent of two thirds of the qualified electors.”
In fact, if the proposed ACA 13 standard were applied when the current California Constitution of 1879 was put before the voters, California would not have a constitution at all! So, it is perfectly consistent with California’s constitution and history to have new constitutional amendments pass with a simple majority, even if those amendments require a super-majority vote to raise taxes.
ACA 13 is a cynical attempt to accomplish what “progressives” know they cannot do directly – repeal Prop. 13’s protections. Voters are tired of being tricked and abused in California by politicians who want to keep raising taxes. That’s why polls show the Taxpayer Protection and Government Accountability Act is likely to pass, and why politicians are desperate to stop it.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.