Triskaidekaphobia

Loren Kaye
President of the California Foundation for Commerce and Education

Triskaidekaphobia: noun – fear concerning the number 13.

Failure is an orphan, but in politics its authors still need a fall guy. Hence the odd notion being advanced that the statewide school bond proposal heading for defeat was injured by its ballot designation: Proposition 13.

 “If it passes, it was because it was a school construction bond, and if it fails, it was because it was named Prop. 13,” the author of the school bond, Assembly Member Patrick O’Donnell, told POLITICO on election night.

Assm. O’Donnell is so vexed by this theory, he promised to carry legislation retiring the number “13” from all future state ballots. Usually a player’s number is retired in honor of great deeds accomplished, however in this case the sponsors probably mean it as a tribute virtue gives to vice.

This isn’t even a new idea. As Joel Fox observed last November, the late Senator Ross Johnson proposed in 1999 to retire Proposition 13 as a number used on state ballot measures. “An analysis of Johnson’s bill written by Senate staffers grumbled, wouldn’t retiring the number 13 be ‘viewed by most observers as a means to honor Proposition 13…?’”

But let’s not be too hasty. Dumping the blame for the defeat of this year’s Proposition 13 on its 42-year-old namesake may be … complicated. 

If “Proposition 13” made any difference in this year’s ballot vote, it likely has more to do with the larger conversation over taxes than it does with the mere numbering of the star-crossed school bond. 

After all, for the better part of two years, unions and social justice advocates have been beating the drums for a split roll property tax – presently headed for a spot on the November ballot. If voters were confused about what the latest Proposition 13 was all about, it probably reflected the recent and pervasive chatter about raising business property taxes to support school programs. Otherwise, voters had little reason to imagine the state school bond, whose ballot label and description never mentioned property taxes, had anything to do with Howard Jarvis’ brainchild.

Indeed, any messaging even suggesting the opposite was inevitably swamped: $12 million raised by Prop 13 proponents was met with virtually no opposition campaign.

This isn’t even the first time since 1978 that voters considered a Prop 13. Three times before this year a “Proposition 13” has appeared on a ballot, succeeding twice:

  • In November 1982, voters rejected Proposition 13, a ballot initiative that proposed massive limitations on water development and transfers.
  • In March 2000, voters approved Proposition 13, a $2 billion bond issue for safe drinking water, water quality, flood protection, and water reliability programs.
  • In June 2010, voters approved Proposition 13, a measure limiting new property tax assessments for seismic retrofit

Voters considering the latter two measures – dealing with spending money and property taxes, respectively – seemed unconcerned with ballot numerology, approving the measures by 65% and 85%, respectively.

Without asking voters, nobody can be sure as to why they turn down a ballot measure. In this case, reasons could also include the sheer size of the measure ($15 billion), the proliferation of other local tax and bond proposals (according to Cal-Tax, 122 of 257 local tax and bond measures failed, with another 57 too close to call), contemporaneous stock market volatility in the wake of coronavirus, or an older electorate less conducive to investing in schools.

But if you insist that the number one reason is the number 13, then give an assist to split roll proponents, who have invested millions over the past several years promising voters they would fix Proposition 13.

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