Two years ago, when 2013-14 legislative session began, things looked very dark for California homeowners. Democrats, many hostile to Proposition 13, achieved a super-majority in both the Assembly and Senate. Many publicly expressed their hostility to the landmark property tax initiative and one even said he would like to “nuke” Prop 13. Others were a bit more subtle, saying only that it was time to “examine” it. Of course, in this context, “examine” is a euphemism for “dismantle.”
However, for a variety of reasons, it now appears that Prop 13 has survived unscathed and, in fact, emerged stronger than ever. This is great news for all California taxpayers who rely on Proposition 13’s protections.
But it wasn’t easy. Here are some examples of what Proposition 13 had to endure.
Without a doubt, the biggest threat this session was Assembly Constitutional Amendment 8, a measure that would have lowered the two-thirds vote to approve local bonds. ACA 8 passed out of the Assembly on a pure party-line vote, with all Democrats voting in favor. Notably, this was the first attack in Proposition 13’s 36 year history to clear a house of the Legislature. Passage of ACA 8 would have meant billions of dollars of additional debt placed solely on the backs of property owners. However, due the diligent work of taxpayer advocates and the shocking criminal indictments of three Democratic State Senators – taking them out of the action – meant that the Senate lost its supermajority status and thus Proposition 13’s enemies were denied the ability to put ACA 8 on the ballot.
There were other threats to taxpayers that were successfully repelled. Senate Bill 1021 would have resulted in an explosion of so-called “parcel taxes” – property levies above Prop 13’s one percent cap. This bill would have allowed these taxes to be imposed, not on a uniform basis as currently required, but based on various classifications depending on how the property was used. Had SB 1021 passed, these dreaded parcel taxes would have been much easier to pass.
Sadly, some of the traditional taxpayer allies in the legislature have turned into “summer soldiers and sunshine patriots” making it difficult for those of us who advocate for taxpayers to determine upon whom we can rely. Double-digit numbers of once proud pro-taxpayer Republicans have succumbed to the demands of their liberal colleagues and big government advocates. As a result, a timber tax, mattress tax and massive car tax – cumulatively totaling billions of dollars – were passed.
But in the good news column, a recording tax on various property related documents, a tax on carbon emissions and a fireworks tax that would have slammed numerous local non-profit organizations all failed to gain approval this year.
It is not just tax issues that threaten ordinary Californians. Because direct democracy rights – the right of initiative, referendum and recall – are powerful tools in the hands of voting citizens, taxpayer advocates work hard to preserve them. Collectively, these rights represent one of the few ways to deal with an indolent, incompetent or corrupt legislature.
But few elected legislators see it that way. Even some of those who had been counted as taxpayers allies have been eager to undermine the initiative process in order to reassert control by the very politicians against whom the initiative process was designed to protect.
It is important for taxpayers to realize how important the initiative process is. Without it, we never would have been able to enact Prop 13 and tens of thousands of homeowners whose homes were saved would have been forced out onto the street. And it is not just Prop 13. Other HJTA sponsored measures like Prop 218, the Right to Vote on Taxes Act, would never have come to fruition without giving those who pay the bills – California taxpayers – the right to enact laws and Constitutional Amendments directly.
So, while this legislative session is over, what does the future portend? As Mark Twain said, “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session.” In 2015 we can expect renewed attacks both on Proposition 13 and the initiative process. But for now, Proposition 13 continues to stand tall protecting the rights of California taxpayers. And so, for a few short months, we can relax – a little.
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Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.