The renewed discussion about Proposition 13 this week prompted by Governor Jerry Brown’s plan to realign state and local government responsibilities should put the focus on another key issue: public employee pensions and health benefits.

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that property taxes are rising all around the country with public officials blaming the need to met pensions and health care costs.

Philadelphia raised property taxes nearly 10-percent. A spokesman for the Illinois Municipal League said while property taxes have increased in recent years to keep up with pension and health care costs, the increases this year have been much larger. Don Boyd, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government at the State University of New York told the Journal, “Unless governments really want to squeeze essential services…there are likely to be a lot more property tax increases.”

The squeeze on essential services is already happening. Public Defender Jeff Adachi’s unsuccessful ballot crusade to limit public pensions in San Francisco during the recent election was built on the premise that services promised by the city were being cut back to cover pension and health care obligations.

Post election, the San Francisco city controller revealed the city has a $4.3 billion unfunded liability for retiree health care costs. That doesn’t even cover current workers and what is due them. But, don’t fear, the city has set aside $9.7 million to cover that 4-billion plus obligation!

How will San Francisco and other California government entities cover the pension and health care costs?

Unlike governments in other states, because of Proposition 13, California can’t rely on property tax to offset pension debt. That law puts a check on property tax increases.

But with property tax the basic revenue source for local government, and pensions and health care costs squeezing local government, one suspects property taxes, and therefore Proposition 13, will play a central role in the realignment debate.

Keep a keen eye on the realignment discussion and what responsibilities local governments will fund. With pension and health costs a growing part of local budgets; efforts to provide new local revenues will not simply pay for services but the pension obligations as well.

One effort to breach Proposition 13 to cover pension costs has been tried in the past and may resurface again. Prop 13 excluded from its tax cap any debt encumbered prior to the measure passing in June 1978. Courts have ruled that public pension systems, approved by voters prior to that date, constitute an authorized debt exempt from the property tax cap. However, another court decision says the debt is only on benefits that were in place as of June 1978. New benefits added later are not considered debt that can be paid for by exceeding the cap.

Under the realignment plan efforts to claim public employee pensions and benefit costs to be covered by property tax very well could become an issue again.

Proposition 13 will not be sacrificed to deal with the budget hole created by promises made to public employees. Proposition 13 is as much a promise to provide certainty to taxpayers as any deal public employees made with elected local officials.