In the current legislative session there has been a movement toward making changes in the Proposition 13 tax limits that voters approved in 1978. Democratic legislators have been emboldened to take on some key elements of the so-called “third rail of California politics” after the surprisingly easy passage of the Proposition 30 tax initiative in November 2012.
Voters have already been making changes to the laws that govern the state. Recently, they changed their legislators’ term limits and the legislative redistricting process, lowered the threshold for state budget passage from a two-thirds vote to a simple majority, and changed the partisan primary to a top-two primary. Surprisingly, they also voted to change the once highly popular Three Strikes Law. So, will reforming Proposition 13 be the next big thing?
One Proposition 13 tweak that is a perennial favorite among tax reformers is lowering the two-thirds vote that is needed to pass local special taxes. Proponents argue that this change would allow local governments to more easily raise needed revenues for schools, public safety, transportation, and water projects.
However, the backers of this particular Proposition 13 reform would face substantial opposition among the electorate today. In our January PPIC Statewide Survey, just 44 percent of voters were in favor of lowering the vote threshold from two-thirds to 55 percent, while 51 percent were opposed. These findings are consistent with most of our polling over time.
Looking more closely at the January survey findings, 50 percent of Democrats want to lower the vote threshold to pass local special taxes to 55 percent, but fewer than half of independents and Republicans favor it. Voter support falls below a majority among men and women, renters and homeowners, across age, education, and income groups and the state’s major regions. In other words, proponents of this change would start with less than majority support and need to run an expensive campaign to convince some “no” voters to vote yes. This would be an uphill battle, given that efforts to change Proposition 13 have always faced a well-organized anti-tax coalition in the past.
But there is a Proposition 13 change that has substantial voter support: creation of a “split roll” property tax. Under this proposal, commercial property would be taxed according to current market value and Proposition 13’s strict limits on property tax assessments and annual property tax increases would apply only to residential property. Advocates for this idea argue that business interests have reaped tax benefits that were supposed to be directed at homeowners and that a split roll would generate billions in new revenues for state and local programs.
This proposal has support among 60 percent of voters in our January PPIC Statewide Survey, with majority support among men and women, homeowners and renters, and across age, education, income, race/ethnic groups and the state’s regions. This reform has solid majority support among Democrats and independents, and 43 percent of Republicans also favor it. What gives the proponents pause for mounting an initiative campaign for a split-roll property tax? The likelihood that a campaign against it by well-funded business and commercial interests would succeed. Also, six in 10 voters say that Proposition 13 has been mostly a good thing for the state in our May 2013 PPIC Statewide Survey, making it easy for split-roll opponents to cast doubts about making changes to this popular initiative.
California voters started a national tax revolt when they approved Proposition 13 during Jerry Brown’s first term as governor—and he does not mention taking aim at Proposition 13 as a priority as he seeks a record fourth term. So what may be in store for change-minded voters? In our January poll, voters liked the governor’s plans for a rainy day fund and paying down the debt. We can expect to see legislation and ballot measures reflecting a desire to get the state’s fiscal house in order. In this election year, it seems unlikely that the state’s politicians will challenge the voters’ longstanding love affair with Proposition 13.