The Democratic Presidential Candidates Are Not Embracing “Reform” of Prop 13

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)

Democratic presidential candidates keep saying they are endorsing “reform” of Prop 13. But what these eight candidates are really endorsing is Prop 13.

Someone ought to tell them the truth, because backers of the split roll initiative haven’t. They are touting the latest version of their initiative to lift some of the Prop 13 limits on commercial property increases, and to direct some of the money to accounts that are supposed to be used for favored programs.

That’s not reform, or even much of a change, in Prop 13. Indeed, it’s the kind of ballot initiative is very much characteristic of our Prop 13 era.

It’s characteristic because it preserves the essence of Prop 13—not just tax protections for homeowners, but the anti-democratic supermajority requirements for raising taxes at the state and local level. Those requirements have made Prop 13 a force for robbing local governments of their authority and centralizing power in resource-constrained Sacramento. In the Prop 13 era, we often see ballot initiatives that seek to take some small piece of tax and reserve it for some budget purpose. But such measures don’t fix Prop 13—they more deeply embed it in our governance.

“Reforming” Prop 13 means restoring democracy. And that means letting local governments and legislative majorities raise taxes, and then use the money as they see fit. That’s the opposite of this split roll measure, which imposes more formulas on top of the Prop 13 system.

Prop 13 will be stronger as a result, whether split roll wins or loses.

And that’s a very anti-democratic and anti-progressive outcome. Which is why people who call themselves Democrats and progressives shouldn’t be endorsing it.

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