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In 1978 Californians voted to limit their personal tax liability. The ballot initiative approved at that time was titled and summarized by the California Secretary of State as “Proposition 13, Tax Limitations Initiative (1978)”. Click here for a terrific retrospective (or primer, depending on your age).

Property Tax

This is not the Proposition 13 on March 3, 2020’s primary ballot.

We are currently voting (yes, the vote has started already, and will be ongoing now through 3/3/20) on a ballot initiative to authorize $15B in bonds for school and educational facilities throughout California. This current state measure is also termed “Proposition 13”, but its official summary title is “School And College Facilities Bond (2020)”.

Where once California’s schools were the pride of the nation, draw of the world; today they are among the worst-funded K12 schools and the allure of our post-secondary institutions is also at risk.

While it is true this Proposition 13 will cost taxpayers money ($750M spread over 35 years in exchange for $15B to use for immediate costs now), indeed our schools are crumbling and in dire need of infrastructural attention. Where once California’s schools were the pride of the nation, draw of the world; today they are among the worst-funded K12 schools and the allure of our post-secondary institutions is also at risk. We cannot just let the infrastructural surrounds of Pat Brown’s seminal vision of Education melt away. Education, not to mention educational excellence, entails resources.

The terminology is confusing for those of us educated in a world without civics classes. A “ballot initiative” contrasts with a “ballot referendum” in terms of current law; an initiative proposes a new one, a referendum alters existing law.

Collectively these two flavors of ballot measure type are referred to as “propositions”. Click here for simple definitions. Click here for a description of the process of qualifying a ballot measure in CA. Included here is a more detailed explanation of the process. Only the bond-funding Proposition 13 is on the Spring Ballot.

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It’s true this bond measure is a fiscal matter. For this reason many are worried it is related to the infamous “tax revolt” 1978 Proposition.

Social media is full of arguments against the proposition variously that

  • (i) this is an attack on our wallets so it amounts to a slippery slope – vote for this now and your tax liability will be next;
  • (ii) money for government is all the same, it all comes out of our pockets so there’s no distinction;
  • and the invariable (iii) fiscal abuse accounts for all we contribute now, this just throws good money after bad.

Unfortunately (i) above is confounded by the reality that one of the largest casualties of the 1978 Proposition 13 was school funding. While homeowners benefitted personally from lower tax liability, citizens collectively lost tax revenue from commercial taxation. To address the tax revenue deficit principally felt by schools, a “split roll” tax amendment first qualified for 2020’s November ballot, then was substantially amended and is now back in the qualifying process. It is informally termed the “Schools And Community First” measure and is unrelated to either present or past Proposition 13’s.

The original (Schools And Communities First) qualified measure remains scheduled for the Fall ballot, pending qualification of the amended measure. And all of this is “for schools” and “fiscal”, hence the utter confusion with the current, schools bond proposition. But again, we are not voting on the split roll measure this Spring. Only Proposition 13 (listed on the ballot as “State Measure 13”) is on the Spring Ballot.

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Sara Roos
Los Angeles Education Examiner

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