Capitol Alert

Jerry Brown calls ‘split roll’ tax effort ‘tar baby’

California Gov. Jerry Brown, center, arrives with Senate President pro Tem Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles, right, and Assembly speaker Toni Atkins, second from right, to sign landmark legislation SB 350 to combat climate change by increasing the state’s renewable electricity use to 50 percent and doubling energy efficiency in existing buildings by 2030 at a ceremony at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015.
California Gov. Jerry Brown, center, arrives with Senate President pro Tem Kevin De Leon, D-Los Angeles, right, and Assembly speaker Toni Atkins, second from right, to sign landmark legislation SB 350 to combat climate change by increasing the state’s renewable electricity use to 50 percent and doubling energy efficiency in existing buildings by 2030 at a ceremony at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015. AP

Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday called efforts to change Proposition 13, California’s landmark property tax-limiting measure, a “tar baby.”

Brown, speaking at an Urban Land Institute meeting, said he would not advocate removing Proposition 13’s protection for commercial properties, a plan known as a “split roll.”

“I’m not advocating split roll,” the fourth-term Democrat said during an on-stage discussion with real estate developer George Marcus, a friend. “That is definitely a tar baby.”

In Uncle Remus stories, “tar baby” is a doll used to catch Brer Rabbit, and the term has been used to describe difficult situations that are better avoided. But it has also been used as a derogatory reference to black people, and politicians from Mitt Romney to John Kerry have taken flak for their use of it.

Noting that the term carries different meanings – and that civil rights leaders have criticized its use – Patrick Farrell, a professor of linguistics at University of California, Davis, said, “It should be avoided, right?”

In an email, Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said, “Look, this is a metaphor that's been used in a variety of contexts for a very long time and its usage here is clear.”

When he was governor before in 1978, Brown campaigned against Proposition 13. But he embraced it when the measure passed, and he has resisted efforts to alter it in recent years.

On Tuesday, Brown described political difficulties enacting a split roll – and talking about taxes, generally.

“Talking about taxes is not a useful topic,” he said.

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders

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