What Our Split Roll Obsession Has Cost Us

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)

Prop 15 isn’t new. It’s one of the oldest ideas in modern California politics. And the length of our pursuit of this small reform has cost us a lot, in time and opportunity.

In fact, Democrats and spending lobbies have been pursuing a split roll since the 1980s. In 1992, a ballot initiative to split the roll, in a way similar to what Prop 15 proposes. In the nearly three decades since, various split roll initiatives have been filed, but have not gone to voters, because of political opposition. 

If Prop 15 passes, you will see it hailed as a historic victory, a hole poked in Prop 13. But that victory will be a Pyrrhic one. Because it would lay bare how much time the state has wasted in the righteous effort to get more taxes for California’s most important government service, and how little Prop 15 would actually produce to that end. 

California has been badly in need of a broader tax reform, and governance reform, since Prop 13 passed. Instead, it’s built more and more measures on top of Prop 13—I would argue that Prop 15 actually is one such measure, because it builds on top of Prop 13, without actually fixing what’s wrong with it. Over the past three decades, there have been commissions and other efforts to pursue broad tax reform, but they haven’t succeeded. There are many reasons for these failures, but one big one was that liberal groups thought a split roll would be easier, and cost them less politically.

A grand tax reform should produce $50 billion more annually in annual revenues for schools. If Prop 15 passes, schools might get —if they’re lucky—as much as $4 billion or so annually in 2025, when Prop 15 actually is fully implemented. That’s not nothing, but that’s not much more than nothing, given the scale of the need, especially after a pandemic that’s caused widespread academic and social regression among our children. 

This is yet another reason why I’m torn about Prop 15. I’d like to end the games that grant huge discounts to commercial property holders. But I fear that Prop 15 would create new problems, further embed Prop 13, and delay the tax reform and additional revenues we so badly need. 

In other words, our obsession with split roll could have even more costs, even if it finally wins.

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