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Prop. 13: Sacrosanct because voters want it that way [Blowback]

January 17, 2012 |  4:41 pm

Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., responds to Jim Newton's Jan. 9 column, "Why should Prop. 13 be sacrosanct?" If you would like to write a full-length response to a recent Times article, editorial or Op-Ed, here are our FAQs and submission policy

Jim Newton gives high marks to a lawsuit filed by former UCLA Chancellor Charles Young challenging Proposition 13 on the theory that the initiative placing it on the ballot in 1978 was a constitutional revision, not simply an amendment. A revision requires approval of the Legislature before going to voters; an amendment such as Proposition 13 doesn't. 

Newton gives the lawsuit too much credit -- and Proposition 13 too little.

Before Proposition 13, virtually all local governmental entities, including counties, city councils and school districts, could tax property in any amount with a simple majority vote of the body. Low-income families and fixed-income seniors were being taxed out of their homes -- literally. It was impossible for anyone to prepare a family budget because no one knew what next year's taxes might be.

Proposition 13 made several changes. First, it capped the property tax rate at 1% of the property's assessed value. Next, it limited the escalation of assessed value to 2% per year.  So if a person buys a house for $200,000 in 2011, he can prepare a family budget for 2012 knowing that his property's assessed value will rise to no more than $202,000 and his property tax will be 1% of that, or $2,020.

If all Proposition 13 did was cap property taxes, however, it would have been a hollow victory for overtaxed Californians because government bodies would have easily increased other taxes in their place. That's why Proposition 13 also required greater consensus for the state and local governments to raise other taxes.

Young's lawsuit, filed 33 years after voters passed Proposition 13, attacks only the requirement that new state taxes receive two-thirds approval in the Legislature. He argues that this change was a revision of the Constitution, not an amendment. Voters can propose amendments by collecting signatures on an initiative. Revisions, however, must be proposed to the voters by the Legislature. In either case, it is the voters who approve or reject the proposal. The difference is in the procedural route the proposal takes to arrive on the ballot. Young wants the courts, based on a procedural technicality, to tear from the state Constitution a provision that has been in place for 33 years.

Newton laments that because Proposition 13 made it harder to increase taxes, governmental bodies responded by creating a "crazy quilt of fees that often make little sense but can be put in place by majority vote." He writes that "getting rid of all that would be no bad thing."

It is naive to think that making it easier for politicians to raise taxes will get rid of existing fees. Rather, if Young wins, it means Californians can look forward to a crazy quilt of new taxes on top of the many fees they already pay.

But Young has little chance of winning.

Because courts are extremely reluctant to undo the expressed will of voters on pre-election procedural grounds, Young's case has two strikes against it at the start. That the will of the electorate has not changed much in 33 years also works against him. When Newton points out that Proposition 13 requires a two-thirds vote to pass "any tax increase," he unwittingly cites Proposition 26, an initiative approved by voters in 2010 that extended the super-majority threshold to fees, levies and other burdens that Sacramento lawmakers use in place of income or sales tax increases. Proposition 26 proved that a new generation of voters still supports Proposition 13.

Most detrimental to Young's lawsuit, however, is the fact that his claim has already been heard and rejected by California's highest court.  Immediately following the passage of Proposition 13, it was challenged on multiple grounds in the 1978 case Amador Valley Joint Union High School District vs. State Board of Equalization. One of the claims was that the initiative proposed a revision, not an amendment, to the Constitution. The California Supreme Court called that claim the challengers' "primary argument."  The Supreme Court upheld Proposition 13 against that claim: "Article XIII A will result in various substantial changes in the operation of the former system of taxation.  Yet ... the article XIII A changes operate functionally within a relatively narrow range to accomplish a new system of taxation which may provide substantial relief to our citizens." 

Young may disagree with that decision, but the decision is on the books. Courts decide cases on the basis of precedent, and the precedent has already been set. That, thankfully, makes strike three.


Could Prop. 13 fall?

Why should Prop. 13 be sacrosanct?

Prop. 13 and the issue of Amador Valley

The reply: Jim Newton responds to reader comments on Prop. 13

-- Jon Coupal

Photo: Howard Jarvis signals victory as he casts his vote for Proposition 13 in Los Angeles on June 6, 1978. Credit: Ben Olender / Los Angeles Times

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