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Photo by Jack Huynh, Orange Photography

Prop 13: A Lamprey on the Necks
of California Youth

By Jordanna Thigpen

March 24, 2006

My plan this week was to address the 10% raise which United Educators has requested.

Yet it is delusional to write about the problems that our public schools have in San Francisco, and in the State generally, without addressing Proposition 13. Yes, that Proposition 13 - the 27-year-old, $3.2 billion gorilla in the room, which no elected has the courage to address. Like most 27-year-olds, Prop 13 is about to experience its Saturn Return. Astrologically, this portends great change.

Are you sick and tired of being sick and tired? So are our public schools. Reforming Proposition 13 is the only way to save our State and get our educational system back on track.

Proposition 13 arose the way that most revolts do - from corruption. A series of scandals involving county assessors made the public lose faith in the process. The counties weren't assessing properties uniformly (partly because of incompetence; San Francisco actually had the worst performance record in the 1960s.) This, and resulting inequities between poor and wealthy school districts, ultimately led to the Serrano v. Priest series of Supreme Court decisions throughout the 1970s. Yet the public was evenly split in the months leading up to the June 1978 primary, uncertain as always surrounding tax reform.

But then Los Angeles County announced it intended to do huge assessment increases in the new fiscal year, and the public hobbled our schools forever by passing Prop 13. We can cut a bit of slack for the 1978 vote. California voters in the 1970s were suffering from the afterburn of the 1960s, as well as having to deal with hellish orange and ochre shag-carpeted aesthetics at every turn. Presumably, it took a toll.

But it's pretty sad that the public didn't heed the prescient warnings of the opposition at the time: that Prop 13 would, among other problems: (1) subsidize commercial property owners; (2) make home ownership prohibitively expensive and create a disincentive for transfer; (3) unsustainably lay the tax burden on the disproportionately smaller class of young working people; (4) effectively destroy home rule for municipalities; and (5) siphon the blood of the school districts.

Court decisions, including one all the way to the US Supreme Court involving an equal protection challenge [Nordlinger v. Hahn (1992) 505 U.S. 1] upheld the constitutionality of Prop 13. A potentially decent aspect of Prop 13 is that all new taxes require a 2/3 approval from the voters. But unfortunately this aspect, which has protected us from an endless biannual circus of initiatives, also prevents reform, because no elected wants be trounced by the voters.

Prop 13 protects senior and disabled homeowners, whose homes are still assessed at the 1975-1976 rate. It is extremely important that this remain a feature of any reform. In fact, as Baby Boomers evolve, this feature of Prop 13 will become critical.

But, disabled and senior homeowners are also the political reason no one wants to discuss reform. Can't you see the sleek and cunning mailers now? Produced with millions in corporate dollars, they will feature heartbreaking pictures of 85-year-old couples with the captions "We have nowhere else to go." There are ways to reform Prop 13, however, and still protect senior and disabled homeowners.

Prop 13 must be substantively changed to allow for meaningful reassessment of commercial properties. Commercial property is not reassessed unless more than 50% of ownership changes, so holding companies (typically LLCs) are formed for each piece of property. This is not a policy - this is a loophole, which has been exploited over the years to the detriment of all California residents. There's nothing new in calling for reform of commercial property assessment.

What must be new is a modern tax revolt. Some have noted that the revolt that led to Prop 13 has been unmatched in California history in terms of electoral solidarity. It was in fact a conservative backlash which helped secure Ronald Reagan's presidential victory in 1980. Well, it's time for a progressive backlash, one which will lead to a Democratic President in 2008 when people realize that we must focus on domestic priorities like education.

The debate must be framed in terms of what Prop 13 has done to our school districts. The 10% raise requested by United Educators is beyond necessary and should be approved. But we know the district does not have the money to do it. We're losing students to other states, where the infrastructure is properly supported because the property tax structure is more equitable. Any discussion of the dire state of our educational system in this state has to involve Prop 13, or it's not an honest discussion. If electeds prefer to remain in denial about the problem, then voters must seize the initiative process.

District 6 resident Jordanna Thigpen is an attorney, small business owner and a Commissioner with the City's Small Business Commission. You can usually find her at work and she doesn't get to Ocean Beach often enough. Email Jordanna at jgthigpen@gmail.com.




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