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PD Editorial: Time has come to rethink Proposition 13

  • Proposition 13 supporters celebrating after its approval in 1978. (Associated Press)

The question surfaced as soon as it became clear that Democrats won supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature: Is Proposition 13 on the table?

It is — and it should be.

Not because home owners no longer need protection from rising property taxes. They still do, and the Democrats' new majorities won't last long if they try to take it away.

But Proposition 13 did more than cut property taxes. It precipitated an historic transfer of power from local government to Sacramento by designating the Legislature to decide how property tax dollars are allocated among cities, counties and schools.

The state emerged as the primary funding source for K-12 education, with the Legislature acting as a de facto school board. Is anyone of any ideological persuasion satisfied with the result?

Few people outside government can explain the distinctions between state and local revenue, and cities and counties complain with some justification that their treasuries get raided any time Sacramento comes up short. Is that worth preserving?

Finally, Proposition 13 created convoluted rules for raising taxes, requiring two-thirds majorities in some instances and simple majorities in others.

Look no further than the Nov. 6 election to see the practical impact. A state tax increase that was DOA in the Legislature passed with a 55 percent on the ballot. On the same day in Sonoma County, two parcel tax measures failed despite winning majorities of more than 60 percent. One consequence is that fire stations in Cotati, Penngrove and Liberty Valley are now closed on a rotating basis.

Ballot initiatives have a history of mixed results, and Proposition 13 is no exception. Because it's a constitutional amendment, any changes require voter approval. Until now, that meant another initiative.

But legislators can place a constitutional amendment on the ballot with a two-thirds vote, so Democrats, with their new supermajorities, can propose changes to Proposition 13 as soon as 2014.

It's been less than a week since the new Legislature was seated, and already there are proposals to lower the threshold to 55 percent for voter approval of parcel taxes for schools and libraries. The Public Policy Institute of California released a poll showing 57 percent in favor of a split-roll, which would allow more frequent reassessments of commercial property.

By a slightly larger majority, the poll found that most people think Proposition 13 has generally been good for the state. So voters are likely to be wary about any changes, but Proposition 13 is no longer untouchable.

The challenge ahead is designing a system that restores local control of local government's revenue without losing necessary protections for taxpayers.

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