The Prop 13 ‘Reforms’ Only Embed Prop 13 More Deeply

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Reading about all the planned reforms of Prop 13 contemplated by Democrats convinces me of this: Prop 13 will be with us forever.

What these reforms have in common is this: they embed Prop 13 even more deeply in California governance. What these reforms don’t do is change the essence of Prop 13 – taking away the power of local officials to set tax rates, and thus robbing local communities of the ability to govern themselves with real accountability.

The most commonly discussed Prop 13 “reforms” – a split roll property tax and a lowering of the threshold for certain local taxes to a 55 percent margin of approval by voters – share this same defect.

Take the split roll. Prop 13’s essence was that it stripped power from local elected officials and replaced it with a formula – essentially a cap – on property tax rates and the amount that property taxes could grow. Reform would be removing those caps and letting local officials make those decisions. But the split roll proposes to replace the current formula with two different formulas, one for commercial property and one for local property. That might bring in more money – which could be a very good thing for the state – but replacing one property tax formula with another is not a reform of Prop 13. It’s a re-commitment to Prop 13.

The 55 percent idea has the same problem. Yes, 55 percent is more democratic than the 2/3 vote. But the trouble is that, in both cases, local voters decide on the tax increases – not local elected officials. And, as California should have learned from the last 30 years, when you strip local elected officials of this power to set tax rates, you remove local democracy and accountability. Local elected officials in California, unable to set taxes, have been turned into spenders – and they spend big, knowing that they will never have to raise taxes themselves to justify their spending. The 55 percent reform doesn’t change this reality.

Indeed, these Prop 13 reforms are really about making it easier to raise taxes, while preserving Prop 13’s basic centralizing, anti-democratic structure. In other words, Prop 13 reform is likely to make little impact on governance – but strengthen Prop 13.

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