Making Small Changes in Prop 13 Doesn’t Solve the Problem

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)

I found myself agreeing with Jon Coupal of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association the other day.

That doesn’t happen every day. But Jon was writing against SCA 5, a proposed constitutional amendment to make it easier to pass local taxes for school bonds. The amendment would lower the current two-thirds vote requirement for school districts to pass parcel taxes from 2/3 to 55 percent.

I also think the amendment is a bad idea. But for very different reasons than Jon.

Jon argued this was a threat to Prop 13, because it reduced a local tax supermajority protection that was central the 1978 initiative.

My problem with SCA 5 is the opposite—the change strengthens and preserves the Prop 13 system.

Indeed SCA 5 is indicative of a mistake that Democrats and other critics of Prop 13 are making. Their attempts to reverse parts of Prop 13 all serve to more deeply embed the initiative and the system it produced.

That’s because the left sees the core problem of Prop 13 as low taxes. The left is wrong. The core problem of Prop 13 is much bigger—it hurts democracy. And in the process, it created inflexibility that makes governance too hard, and centralizes power in Sacramento, which gives us higher state taxes.

Look at SCA-5 to see what I mean. Instead of getting rid of the supermajority for voter approval of local taxes—an anti-democratic rule that robs our local representatives of power and frustrates voting majorities on tax questions—SCA-5 keeps the Prop 13 system in place, merely replacing one anti-democratic supermajority with another anti-democratic supermajority. If SCA-5 succeeds, it will make it even harder to roll back the essence of Prop 13—the supermajorities for local taxes, and for passing taxes in the legislature.

The split roll initiative that is now the top priority of unions and many Democrats is another case in point. It doesn’t end Prop 13’s many formulas. It merely changes a piece of the Prop 13 formula that applies to commercial property. The structure of Prop 13—and all the problems it creates—will remain very much in place.

Now, I don’t blame Jon for saying that Prop 13 is at risk. That’s his job, and he wins whether SCA-5 or split roll advance, because he supports the Prop 13 system. (Though I disagree strongly with his contention that our schools have plenty of money; they don’t).

But if you want today’s Californians to govern themselves democratically, then SCA-5 is just another loser.




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