At his Sacramento Press Club appearance last week, Senate President Pro Tem, Darrell Steinberg, denied that his proposal to change the initiative process would nullify Proposition 13. However, the Steinberg proposal allows for a majority vote by the legislature to put taxes on the ballot, which undermines the Prop 13 philosophy.

Proposition 13 was an important taxpayer protection. Initiative proponent, Howard Jarvis, said he included the provision to require a two-thirds vote to raise taxes so that the property tax savings enjoyed by taxpayers under the new law would not be taken away so easily by a tax-hungry legislature.

Senator Steinberg argues that under his plan the voters would make the final decision on whether to raise a tax and Proposition 13 was all about voters participating in tax decisions.

However, his proposal puts in place a system that would allow for a constant hammering on taxpayers for more taxes, with the financial wherewithal to promote those tax increases while opponents would be continually scrambling to catch up.

Steinberg makes no secret of his desire to pass revenue measures.

By a simple majority vote, the legislature can put forward all sorts of general and specific tax increases. If they lose at the polls, no problem, they can put up another tax measure at the next election by a majority vote. Public employee unions, which have produced a list of tax increases they support, can be counted on to fund the ballot campaigns because of the automatic withdrawal of political funds from employees’ checks.

Opponents to the tax measures would be constantly in a fundraising mode to meet the challenges of opposing ballot measures and do not have the luxury of automatic fundraising that the public unions enjoy.

Proposition 13’s two-thirds vote provision to raise taxes was designed to protect taxpayers from such harassment.

It is clear from his remarks that Steinberg sees his whole package as undoing what Proposition 13 wrought. Steinberg told the Press Club, “Ever since Proposition 13, really when you think about it, California has been stuck on repeat.  And it isn’t necessarily a catchy tune.”

Steinberg’s other two proposals to alter the initiative process include an indirect initiative in which the legislature plays a role and allowing the legislature to amend initiatives after a number of years.

As a member of Speaker’s Commission on the Initiative Process created by Speaker Bob Hertzberg, I supported the principle of indirect initiatives as long as proponents have power in dealing with the legislature over changes to a measure. I believe an incentive to use an indirect initiative should be built into the law such as a smaller number of signatures necessary to present an initiative to the legislature.

The proposal to change statutory initiatives after ten years could come with unintended consequences. Advocates who go the initiative route and don’t trust the legislature—and many who use the initiative process don’t— will be encouraged to file a constitutional amendment to avoid future legislative interference. Our long state constitution would likely become longer.