Prop. 13 is California Taxpayers Only “Saving Grace”

Proposition 13 is certain to continue to be a hot topic in 2016 and beyond as “reformers” continue to work on mobilizing a statewide effort to enact a “split-roll” that raises billions of dollars in increased property taxes from California businesses.

I have worked in and around Prop. 13 in one form or another for my entire career and have collected more data and research on its impacts that anybody else I have ever come in contact with.

I have since ended that research for the “reform” side, because I came to appreciate Prop. 13 for what it truly is–the last line of defense that California taxpayers have against elected officials who refuse to control “unsustainable” and “unaffordable” spending at both the state and local levels of government. 

For those new to Prop. 13, it is a California ballot measure passed in 1978 that places a 1% limit on local property tax rates, unless a “change in ownership occurs,” and limits assessment increases to 2% per year.

At the state level, Prop. 13 requires that any measure which would raise revenues to be enacted by a 2/3 vote of the Legislature.  At the local level, Prop. 13 requires taxes raised by local governments for a designated or special purpose to be approved by 2/3 of voters and a majority for general tax increases.

 

Stanford University Economist, Roger Noll, stated that “ever increasing, burdensome taxes and fees is the single largest concern facing California businesses.”

 

Sure, Prop. 13 is not perfect, far from it.   But the reality is that there is perhaps no public policy in California that is more effective at safeguarding taxpayers against the inability of California politicians, particularly those of the Democratic stripe, from overspending and then sticking taxpayers with the bill.

With the State of California $400 billion in the red, and most local governments in the same situation, you don’t hear anyone arguing with the fact that California government has a huge spending and debt problem.

Moody’s Investor Services agrees with this assessment, having prepared a report that finds California to be the least prepared state to weather a financial storm due to its fiscal policies and inability to reform its tax system.

Without Prop. 13, California elected officials would have “carte blanc” to push the state’s $1 trillion and growing pension problem onto state and local taxpayers, serving to further exacerbate the problem.  A whole host of other state and local taxes and fees would inevitably become viable proposals overnight in the absence of Prop. 13’s protections.

The ongoing explosion in fees and tax exactions on businesses at the local level is perhaps the best indicator of what would happen if Prop. 13 did not exist—turning an already steady and increasing flow of new local taxes and fees into the equivalent of an unchecked dam-break flood of new taxes and fees on California taxpayers.

Stanford University economist Roger Noll says that the problem of ever increasing, burdensome local taxes and fees is the single most legitimate concern that California businesses express about the state’s system of state and local finance.

Opponents of Prop. 13 cite tax equity and fairness as reasons to “reform” Proposition 13 by switching away from a “change in ownership” trigger for market reassessment to a “periodic reassessment of commercial property at market value.”

Furthermore, reformers say Prop. 13 is not “fair” because it heavily taxes new investment and rewards  “long-time” landowners—resulting in heavily disparate property tax amounts.

They say that the only fair way is to bring all businesses who receive a “tax break” under Prop. 13 up to market value and then send billions of dollars in increased property tax revenues to Sacramento to spend as they please.

My primary issue with this line of reasoning is that Sacramento has already proven that it cannot manage the existing tax dollars it gets from the state’s property tax responsibly so why on earth would we send them a flood of new tax dollars?

Second, the entire state and local tax system is riddled with similar inequities so why are reformers choosing to single out Prop. 13 for “reform”?  California’s major taxes are all characterized by extremely high rates and a very limited or loophole-ridden base.

The result is that those who pay the tax pay full boat, and those who can take advantage of loopholes get a break.  The reality of the situation is that all tax “reformers” in California want to increase tax revenues by leaving the rates the same, closing the loopholes, and sending billions of dollars in increased revenues to Sacramento to poorly manage.

True tax “reform” would be to close the loopholes and lower the base to make the change revenue neutral—but there is not a single tax “reformer” in California that I know of who is pushing for revenue neutral tax reform.

This is the method that nearly all significant successful attempts at tax reform utilized including President Reagan’s 1986 tax overhaul—widely lauded as one of the most successful tax reform efforts of all-time.

Reagan’s 1986 tax reform was “revenue neutral” but hailed by politicians of all stripes for simplifying the tax code, broadening the base and reducing the rates—a win win for everyone, not just those who want more tax dollars.

About the Author: David Kersten is an expert in public policy research and analysis, particularly budget, tax, labor, and fiscal issues. He currently serves as the president of the Kersten Institute for Governance and Public Policy – a moderate non-partisan policy think tank and public policy consulting organization. The institute specializes in providing knowledge, evidence, and training to public agencies, elected officials, policy advocates, organization, and citizens who desire to enact public policy change.

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