Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Proposition 13 changes stymied by Democrats’ loss of supermajority

Dan Walters
Dan Walters

Next month marks the 36th anniversary of Proposition 13, California’s iconic property tax limit, and time has not healed its political wounds.

Conservatives still love it, liberals still hate it and it’s perpetual fodder for academic, journalistic and political cogitating.

Decades of polling tell us that voter support for Proposition 13’s property tax limits and high vote thresholds for other taxes remains strong – too strong, evidently, for a frontal assault by its critics, such as a ballot measure to repeal it.

Consistently, polling by the Public Policy Institute of California confirms, those who see Proposition 13 positively outnumber foes by roughly a 2-1 margin.

It’s fair to assume, however, that most legislators, who are overwhelmingly Democratic and allied with anti-Proposition 13 groups such as unions, would favor repeal or at least some major modifications. They have been trying, therefore, to chip away at its tax restrictions.

Several measures are floating around the Capitol this year to do exactly that, but most would require two-thirds legislative votes because they are either constitutional amendments or would raise taxes (the latter is one of Proposition 13’s barriers) and therefore are moribund.

Democrats won two-thirds supermajorities in both legislative houses in the 2012 elections, but by very narrow margins, and the Senate supermajority has since been erased. Democrats lost one seat in a special election last year and three Democratic senators facing criminal charges have been suspended.

Therefore, with Republicans firmly opposed to new taxes, moving any tax measure requiring a two-thirds vote is now impossible. That leaves Senate Bill 1021, which would expand use of “parcel taxes” by school districts, the only big tax bill still alive.

Unlike other property taxes limited by Proposition 13, which are based on value, parcel taxes are, under current law, fixed amounts on property regardless of size or value.

Two years ago, a state appellate court ruled that Alameda Unified School District illegally imposed non-uniform parcel taxes – higher levies on some commercial property than on residential parcels.

SB 1021, carried by Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, would overturn the decision and allow differential parcel taxes with two-thirds local voter approval.

Business groups oppose the measure, which requires only a simple-majority legislative vote, contending it could void income tax deductibility of parcel taxes.

The Senate approved the bill – barely – on a party-line vote last week, with several Democrats shunning it.

It’s far from a frontal assault but symbolically moves toward a “split roll,” long sought by Proposition 13 foes to remove its limits from commercial property.

Interestingly, polls indicate that a split roll is the one major change voters would support.