A reporter for the Bay Area News Group stopped by the government office in Santa Clara County and concluded that while people standing in line to pay their property taxes were upset with the heavy burden, they had scant knowledge of California’s iconic Proposition 13. What most were probably unaware of is that their taxes would be at least twice as high without Prop. 13.
Many people who live in California today were not here in 1978 when Proposition 13 was passed overwhelmingly by voters. Today’s younger homeowners have little idea how frightened and angry citizens were in the mid-1970s when their property taxes doubled or even tripled from the previous year. Homeowners were literally being taxed out of their homes.
But despite having no personal memory of the pre-Prop. 13 era, most Californians have at least heard of Proposition 13 and, when prodded, recall it somehow helps to keep escalating property taxes in check.
In June, Proposition 13 will hit its 40th birthday. While long-time homeowners will surely celebrate, those in government with an insatiable appetite for taxpayer dollars are hoping that voters will be ready to weaken it. But previous attacks on Proposition 13 have come up short. At most, Prop. 13 was weakened by court decisions involving fees and charges as well as attacks on the two-thirds vote requirements. But those attacks were quickly countered by subsequent ballot initiatives such as Proposition 218 in 1996, the Right to Vote on Taxes Act, which reinforced Prop. 13’s original intent.
Knowing that a direct attack on Proposition 13’s protections for homeowners is a fool’s errand, the tax-and-spend interests have focused on raising property taxes on business property. This so-called “split roll” effort has gone on for about 30 years and has never really gained any serious traction. According to these interests, 2018 was going to be the year where they would finally be able to take a big chunk out of Prop. 13 by hitting commercial real estate with several billion dollars in higher taxes.
The optimism displayed by Proposition 13’s detractors has been based in large part on the expected “blue wave” of voters coming out in support of progressive candidates. Liberal Democrats believe, rightly or wrongly, that voter disgust with the Trump administration might at least allow them to regain control of the U.S. House of Representatives. The thinking, at least until recently, has been that November of 2018 would be the right moment to fracture the pro-Proposition 13 alliance because of an energized progressive base, low voter turnout and fading memories of 1978.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the ballot box. After beginning a serious effort to collect signatures for their “split roll” initiative, the proponents have taken their foot off the gas and announced that, instead, they will attempt to qualify the measure for the 2020 ballot. The ostensible reason for the delay is that it would give them more time to expand their coalition (of course, the same can be said for Prop. 13 defenders) and that the voter turnout model in 2020 would be better for them – a dubious claim indeed.
Split-roll proponents might be having second thoughts about what they thought was a weakening of support for Prop. 13 or the political strength of their own coalition. Perhaps they’ve seen polling – both private and public – revealing Proposition 13’s continued popularity. Whatever the reason, this November’s election will not present a direct threat to Proposition 13.
Proposition 13 has been called the 3rd rail of California politics – approach it at your own peril. After 40 years, it’s still charged with 20,000 volts.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. This column appeared in the Orange County Register.