Bernie Gives Split Roll the Kiss of Death

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)

If the “split roll” tax initiative didn’t have enough problems, it now has another: the support of Bernie Sanders.

The backing of Senator Sanders is the kiss of death for California ballot initiatives. Bernie supported expanded rent control in 2018 and limits on drug prices in 2016. Both measures were flawed, and went down to defeat.

Indeed, Sanders’ support may be a pretty indication of when a progressive measures goes too far for this progressive state. And he’s likely to keep his streak alive with split roll on the ballot next year.

The split roll takes out a small piece of Prop 13, which remains a political Third Rail. The idea is to split the tax rolls—so that commercial property doesn’t end up taxed at a level lower than that of residential.

But there are all kinds of problems with the measure’s aim. First off, property taxes here are too low on every kind of property, as even previous backers of Prop 13 have conceded. When you tax property, you don’t get less of it.

California makes up for lower property taxes with higher taxes on things we’d like more of—income and sales. 

The real problem with Prop 13 is its lack of democracy—specifically, its 2/3 requirements for state and local tax increases. But the split roll initiative ignores those points—and actually works against democracy itself, with ballot-box budgeting that walls off new funds for certain favored spending items. Our elected officials wouldn’t be able to decide how to spend that money.

Sanders also issued his split roll endorsement at a gathering of UTLA, the hapless teachers’ union in L.A. Unified that was last seen badly losing a tax measure, after a pointless week-long strike that union officials mistakenly saw as a big victory. Sanders, in endorsing it, took some cheap shots at charter schools—contributing to the thoughtless strategy of dividing education interests that need to be united if an initiative like split roll were to pass.

This state badly needs serious tax and constitutional reforms that would provide new ways of governance, and greater and more dependable revenues. But Sanders, and other unserious voices on the left, want a split roll.

No one should be surprised when they lose.

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