The stage appears set for a very expensive political battle in 2020 over changing Proposition 13, the iconic property tax limit that California voters enacted 40 years ago.
A coalition of civic groups, led by the League of Women Voters and calling itself “Schools and Communities First,” has qualified a ballot measure to remove the Proposition 13 assessment limits from commercial properties such as office buildings, factories, shopping centers and warehouses, thus raising their owners’ taxes by as much as $11 billion a year.
The additional revenue from the “split roll” would be divvied up among K-12 schools, community colleges, cities, counties and other local government agencies.
Conventional political wisdom assumes that proponents will raise millions of dollars to pass the measure, most likely from unions representing teachers and other public employees. In response, commercial real estate owners will at least match supporters’ spending. Both sides will inundate voters with a flood of propaganda via television, the internet and mailers.
Advocates for the measure will tell voters that commercial real estate enjoys an unconscionable “loophole” and that more revenue is needed for financially strapped schools and vital local services. Opponents will counter that it’s an initial step toward repealing Proposition 13 entirely hand raising property taxes on homes, apartments and farms, and that new revenues would be consumed by rapidly increasing public employee pension costs.
While this scenario is certainly a strong possibility, it’s not inevitable because of a new wrinkle in the politics of ballot measures: Proponents can withdraw them even after they’ve qualified, giving them leverage to seek deals from legislators and governors to forestall expensive ballot battles.
We saw it work this year when a measure dealing with internet privacy was withdrawn after its proponent agreed on a compromise with the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown. Lenny Goldberg, who has spearheaded the decades-long effort to change Proposition 13, told a gathering of early childhood education advocates in Sacramento last week that he would welcome a tax reform deal with business interests to supersede the measure.
That’s not surprising, given the general popularity of Proposition 13, relatively mild initial support in polls for a split roll and the likelihood of a well-funded opposition campaign.
While Goldberg didn’t specify what a deal might contain, he hinted that it could include confining the split roll to big properties such as high-rise office buildings, high-tech campuses, shopping centers and factories. The most valuable properties, he said, are a small percentage of commercial parcels, but would generate the vast majority of revenues. He also mentioned that were California to conform to corporate tax provisions of the recent federal tax overhaul, the state could gain several billion dollars in additional revenue.
Any agreement to replace the split roll initiative would require the blessing of the Democratic-dominated Legislature and the next governor, presumably Democrat Gavin Newsom, so there’s the possibility that it could be folded into a larger tax overhaul.
Newsom has expressed hopes of spending billions more on education and health care and mentioned a split roll as one potential source of revenue. There’s also been a big push in the Legislature to overhaul the sales tax and extend it to the fast-growing service sector.
The split roll measure’s date with voters is two years away, which leaves plenty of time to do a tax deal of some kind. Stay tuned