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Proposition 13 lawsuit: Farce or threat? [The reply]

December 27, 2011 |  5:22 pm

Prop. 13
Well, I guess it's no great surprise to discover that Californians still care deeply about Proposition 13. My column this week, about a lawsuit that challenges the 33-year-old measure, touched off hundreds of angry emails, many from property owners who worried that if the challenge were successful, they could be forced back to the days when rising values and rising taxes threatened to push some owners from their homes.

Sifting through the name-calling -- surely it's possible for people to disagree about the effects of Proposition 13 and the merits of the legal case against it without calling each other "morons," "dimwits" or "self-righteous, sanctimonious moonbats" -- the basic lines of response were two: Those who think the legal challenge is a farce, and those who worry that it might be for real.

In the farce category, a number of readers argued that the Supreme Court already has ruled on the issue at the center of this case, the question of whether Proposition 13 was an amendment to the California Constitution, which merely requires a vote of the people, or whether it in fact amounted to a revision, in which case it would have needed the support of the Legislature as well. Because the Legislature did not approve Proposition 13, if it really was a revision, then all or part of it might be legally invalid. Some readers pointed to a 1978 case in which the court did address the issue, ruling that Proposition 13 was an amendment and thus valid. But the case that readers cited, Amador Valley Joint Union High School District vs. State Board of Equalization (1978), confronted a challenge to Proposition 13 in terms of its reach in rolling back property taxes and its alleged alteration of the balance of power between local governments and Sacramento. The court concluded that Proposition 13 did not so alter those relationships that it would destroy "home rule," and it found that even though local governments would have a harder time raising taxes in the future, they still could if they could persuade voters to go along. Thus, viewed through those arguments, the court concluded that Proposition 13 was an amendment, not a revision.

The new case raises different issues, however. It does not contest Proposition 13's ability to restrain property taxes but rather says that another provision of the initiative, the one requiring any new taxes approved by the Legislature to receive a two-thirds majority of the Assembly and state Senate, so fundamentally alters the work of the Legislature that it should be classified as a revision. Defenders of Proposition 13 argue that the court has spoken; supporters of this lawsuit say they believe the court has not addressed this point. One other note to consider: The lead lawyer in the new case, retired judge William A. Norris, knows something about the Amador case. He was the lead lawyer then too.

On the other end of those reacting to the column were those who bemoaned this lawsuit, not because they think it's unlikely to succeed but rather because they fear that it might. For some, Proposition 13 has worn poorly. They see the inequity between new home-buyers and established owners that can result in radically different tax bills for similar homes; they complain that the limitations on the government for raising public funds has starved schools and infrastructure; they see Proposition 13 as stifling and responsible for much of California's decline in the years since voters approved it. For others, however, it is a monument to citizen power and to restrained taxation. Losing it, they fear, would plunge California back to the days when tax bills were rising so fast that some could not afford to stay. As one reader put it: "Repeal Prop. 13. Otherwise known as: Kick grannie and pops out of their home."

Finally, beyond those readers eager to see the measure repealed and those desperate to keep it in place, there's a third group. They boil this issue down to illegal immigration. Then again, that's how they boil down every issue.

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Photo: Since 1978, when this photo was taken in Manhattan Beach, Prop. 13 has established the basic facts of political life in California. Now there's a legal challenge. Credit: Los Angeles Times

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