WITH JORDANNA THIGPEN
Photo by Jack
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
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
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
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
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
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 email@example.com.