Devastating Fires Could Boost Proposition 19

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

Californians across the state are living through, watching and reading about the devastation caused by the fires roaring throughout the state, already consuming about 1.5 million acres with still months to go before the usual fire season is over. Typically, major disasters trigger political responses in one form or another and the fires in the summer of 2020, especially if they are followed by expected fall fires, will be no exception. Support for Proposition 19 on the November ballot could benefit because it sets up a fund specifically to battle wildfires and gives a tax break to wildfire victims who lose their homes. 

The fire fund provision is not the core issue of Proposition 19. In fact, it was essentially an add on late in the game but could become more prominent due to the destructive fires. 

Prop 19 allows homeowners who are over 55, disabled, or wildfire or disaster victims to transfer their primary residence’s tax base to a replacement residence. It changes the tax law for children and grandchildren who inherit property but do not use the inherited property for their prime residences and it establishes a fire protection services fund. 

The measure was promoted initially by the California Association of Realtors who sought to increase housing stock by giving incentives for seniors over 55 to move without triggering a property tax increase. As its central feature, the initiative expanded elements already on the books for seniors and the disabled to move and keep their old property taxes within their own county or to certain counties that accepted transferring seniors. If Prop 19 passes, all counties in the state must allow for such moves multiple times instead of just once. A similar ballot effort, Proposition 5, was defeated in 2018. 

A revamped initiative built on the same core issue was aimed for the 2020 ballot when the legislature stepped in to propose a deal—keep the essential goal of the proposition but make some adjustments, including dedicating revenues gained by the state to a fire protection fund. 

When the deal was struck, the initiative fell away and the legislative constitutional amendment was placed on the ballot by a 29 to 5 vote in the senate and a 56 to 5 vote in the assembly, well above the two-thirds vote margin required. 

Opposition to Prop 19 is focused on the tax issue. Opponents say that overall property taxes will increase when inherited property is reassessed to market value when transferred between parents and children, or, if the children’s parents are deceased, between grandparents and grandchildren if those who inherit don’t live on the premises. 

But while the property tax issue is the overriding issue within Proposition 19, the California fires will bring a new emphasis to the provisions of wildfire victims getting a break on property taxes and the establishment of a fire protection fund that could help boost the yes campaign. 

This would not be the first time such a thing happened. 

In 1993, during a special election, a half-cent state sales tax that was about to expire was put on the ballot to be made permanent, if the voters agreed. The tax was dedicated to local public safety, including fire protection. Right before Election Day, devastating fires broke out around Southern California. While seven measures were on the 1993 special election ballot, only two passed, including the tax measure with nearly 58% of the vote. No question that the fires raging at the time helped convince voters to pass Proposition 172. 

While the fires of August 2020 are happening months before the election, the fall fire season promises more blazes. All of a sudden, a secondary provision in Proposition 19 tied to actual events the voters live through and witness could turn the political tides in the measure’s favor.

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