Some notice has followed the fact that the state school construction bond on the coming March ballot has been labeled Proposition 13, the same ballot number of the well-known 1978 property tax cutting measure long praised or vilified in political circles depending on who is speaking. The concern raised brought back a memory when there was an attempt to end confusion over the use of the Proposition 13 label and retire the number, as I’ll relate below.

With the school bond Proposition 13, Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, chief protector of the 1978 property tax reduction, announced,  “HJTA will be opposing Prop 13 (that’s sounds weird) on the March ballot.” His concern is with additional debt generated by the $15 billion bond, the inclusion of Project Labor Agreements in the measure, which add to the cost, and the fact that local school districts are required to provide matching funds for state money, which opens the gates for more property tax backed local bonds.

Both proponents and opponents of the bond are not sure how the Proposition 13 label will play with the electorate. John Fensterwald in EdSource had a discussion about the angst on both sides of the question and how the famous tax cutting Proposition 13 of 1978 might color the effort to pass or defeat the March 2020 Proposition 13 bond.

Twenty years ago, the legislature changed the initiative numbering rules to start over at number one every ten years. Previously, the recycling of numbers began after 20 years.

Foreseeing possible voter confusion tied to a future Proposition 13, the late Senator Ross Johnson introduced a bill in 1999 to retire Proposition 13 as a number used on state ballot measures. The first post tax cutting Proposition 13 was scheduled to appear on the 2000 ballot (a water bond) and Johnson wanted his bill enacted before that occurred.

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…?”

That was probably some of Johnson’s intent as significant sports figures’ uniform numbers are also retired to honor them. But Johnson’s foresight on the possibility of confusion over a ballot measure with the Proposition 13 label is being confirmed by the discussion generated over the coming school bond ballot measure.

To prevent the number 13 being used in the upcoming 2000 election, Johnson’s bill needed to receive a two-thirds vote as an urgency measure to take effect immediately. It received a majority vote but fell short of the two-thirds and thus failed.

On one level, Proposition 13 of 1978 doesn’t need special treatment from government to achieve legitimacy with voters. On the other hand, as long as the original Proposition 13 remains a prominent and much discussed feature of California’s political landscape there will continue to be confusion when a new Proposition 13 appears before voters.