Reading the Props: 19’s Glorious West Coast Bias

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Every two years, I read the full text of all statewide ballot propositions—because at least one Californian should.

Next is Prop 19.

 

The best bit of populist language on California’s November ballot doesn’t come in an initiative qualified with the signatures of the people. It comes courtesy of the establishment—the members of the California state legislature. 

It appears in Proposition 19, a constitutional amendment put on by the legislature. It’s exactly the sort of measure that shouldn’t be on the ballot. And it wouldn’t be if politics and governance in California were at all sane, which of course they’re not. 

This is not constitutional material. It’s 3300 words of technical changes around the tax assessment transfers. In our state, certain homeowners can transfer their tax assessment to a different home that isn’t worth any more—so you can move without paying higher taxes (given Prop 13’s ability to keep taxes low on homes you bought longer ago). This ballot measure extends this tax break even when you’re moving into a more expensive home. And such transfers would be allowed three times—rather than just once—for people over 55, or who are disabled. 

And people wonder why millennials are so angry.

There’s another blow to the young here. Currently, your parents or grandparents can transfer their primary residences to kids or grandkids without the assessment being reset to market value. But Prop 19 eliminates that exemption—unless the kid or grandkid uses it as their principal residence.

To make this a perfect symphony of rotten governance, the measure also does some ballot box budgeting, putting additional tax revenues from this in protected accounts. These accounts are all about politics; they are supposed to go to counties and fire protection—which sound good to voters—but they’ll just end up making California’s impossible budgeting even more complicated, and at a time when balancing the budget is going to be nearly impossible.

The awfulness of this measure can’t be redeemed, but it did have that one populist paragraph that does make me laugh. Prop 19 pitches itself as attacking those who would use property as an investment as opposed to those who live in their houses. And to do this, it would add the following paragraph to the state constitution. The best parts are in bold: 

(2) Limit property tax increases on family homes used as a primary residence by protecting the right of parents and grandparents to pass on their family home to their children and grandchildren for continued use as a primary residence, while eliminating unfair tax loopholes used by East Coast investors, celebrities, wealthy non-California residents, and trust fund heirsto avoid paying a fair share of property taxes on vacation homes, income properties, and beachfront rentals they own in California.

I love the blast at “East Coast” investors. And it would be fun to see that in the constitution. The trouble is the rest of the measure.

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