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California Tax Revolt Faces a Retreat, 40 Years Later

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tags: California, Tax revolt, property taxes, Proposition 13



In 1978, a Los Angeles businessman named Howard Jarvis led an insurgent campaign to pass Proposition 13, a ballot measure that limited California property taxes and inspired a nationwide tax revolt. The law has been considered sacrosanct ever since, something California governors and legislators challenge at their peril.

Now, as a pandemic tears through local budgets, a well-financed campaign backed by teachers’ unions has mounted a serious challenge to a major portion of the law: its application to commercial property.

If voters approve the effort next week, they would give labor and progressive groups a striking victory in raising the low tax rates that longtime property owners enjoy. If it fails, the campaign will have spent tens of millions of dollars only to affirm that Proposition 13 is untouchable.

The new initiative, Proposition 15, would amend the state’s Constitution so that properties like offices and industrial parks would no longer be protected by Proposition 13. By creating a “split roll” system, in which residential property would continue to be shielded from tax increases but commercial property would not, backers hope to capitalize on Democratic energy to raise taxes on large corporations without alarming homeowners.

“We can’t afford to continue to give large corporations a tax break they don’t need when we desperately need to invest in infrastructure, first responders, public health and public education,” said Catherine Bracy, executive director of the TechEquity Collaborative, a nonprofit group that mobilizes tech workers on issues of economic inclusion.

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Proposition 13’s lock on California politics began with the bouts of hyperinflation that shredded household budgets through much of the 1970s. In addition to the rising cost of food, electricity and other staples, the value of housing — and by extension, property taxes — also soared. In California, residential property values rose 250 percent from 1970 to 1980, while household income remained flat.

As tax payments consumed a larger share of homeowners’ budgets, Mr. Jarvis, a retired businessman turned anti-tax gadfly, mounted a 1978 citizens’ initiative, eventually called Proposition 13, that would cut California property taxes and limit future tax increases to no more than 2 percent a year, unless the property was sold. It passed with just under two-thirds of the vote and has since endured various legal challenges. In 1992, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the legality of Proposition 13 but called it “distasteful and unwise.”

Mr. Jarvis, who died in 1986, framed his campaign as a way to make the tax system more equal, but Proposition 13’s legacy has been the opposite. Because property values are reassessed for tax purposes only after a building is sold, the law has created a wildly disparate system in which new buyers pay vastly higher taxes than longtime owners.

It is not uncommon for neighbors to pay double or triple the taxes of a similar home on the same block. A recent analysis of property taxes across the Bay Area is rife with eye-popping comparisons, like a $9 million home in an exclusive neighborhood of San Francisco that has lower property taxes than a $331,000 home near an oil refinery across the bay in Richmond.

Read entire article at New York Times

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