Prop 13 Withstands Legislative Attack, Sign a Big Tax Deal will be Hard

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

Governor Gavin Newsom says he wants to cut a deal to restructure California’s tax system— that would include changes to the legendary taxpayer protection measure, Proposition 13. But when the supermajority Assembly Democrats on Monday could not rally enough support to put a Prop 13 change on the ballot, you understand that such a task will be as difficult as predicted by Newsom’s predecessor, Jerry Brown. Even in left-charging, tax and spend California, the tax issue and Proposition 13 still have power.

The constitutional amendment up for a vote was ACA 1 that would reduce some local tax passing requirements for bonds and parcel taxes from a two-thirds vote to 55%. The final tally in the Assembly was 44 yes, 20 no, with 15 abstentions. The measure being a constitutional amendment, it needed 54 votes to clear the Assembly and fell considerably short.

Support for the bill came from those who want to make it easier to raise local taxes and claim that majority votes should rule in a democracy. 

In fact, the two-thirds vote and even greater votes appear many times to affirm an action under democratic deliberations. Consider the vote requirements for juries, or many legislative actions. In fact, it can’t go without notice that the vote required to place a reduction for the two-thirds vote on the ballot takes a two-thirds vote.

Assemblyman Ken Cooley, a Democrat who opposed the tax increase portion of the proposal, made a reasoned argument during the floor debate on how the two-thirds vote is “wholesome” for democracy because it forces advocates to reach out and broaden coalitions and communicate “shared community values.” 

Despite support from leadership, the necessary votes were not there to pass the measure and move it on to the Senate. A large number of members, including some Republicans, chose not to vote at all. 

On the Democratic side, there was concern about difficult races and that a yes vote might offend too many voters, but a no vote could raise a primary challenge on their left and go against some of the interests that hover around the legislature. One Republican member talked about concern for public safety services while another supports the notion that the people should decide. Yet, no Republican voted yes on the bill.

All abstentions resulted because few legislators want to move on Proposition 13 given its strong support in polls. In fact, an April 2018 PPIC poll found that even undoing the two-thirds vote could not garner majority support from likely voters.

So where does that leave the governor on his quest for tax reform? He is not naive; he knows it won’t be easy. 

Rushing forward with bold changes with a hope that voters will jump on the bandwagon is one approach. Newsom tried such an approach before as mayor of San Francisco. But, the legislative thermometer as displayed in the ACA 1 vote indicates that would likely be a fool’s errand when taking on Prop 13.

Any approach will have to be more diplomatic and delicate. Considering that the two sides in the tax and spend wars have been at it like the Hatfields and McCoys for decades, that will take some fancy diplomatic work on behalf of the governor.

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