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Prop. 13 and the issue of Amador Valley [The reply]

January 11, 2012 | 11:51 am

My most recent column, which asks why Prop. 13 should be sacrosanct, drew many comments, including this one from "jackjack5."

Two weeks ago, Jim Newton wrote an article “about a lawsuit working its way through the state courts that poses a novel and fundamental challenge to Proposition 13, the tax initiative approved by California voters in 1978. According to the lawsuit, brought by former UCLA Chancellor Charles Young — represented by William A. Norris — Proposition 13's imposition of a two-thirds requirement for the Legislature to approve any tax increase may have so altered the arrangements of California government that it constitutes a revision of the Constitution rather than a mere amendment.”

Newton wrote that it was a novel approach. The problem is that it wasn’t novel at all. In fact, the issue was decided by the California Supreme Court in the 1979 case of Amador Valley Joint Union High Sch. Dist. v. State Bd. of Equalization in which the Court specifically found that Prop. 13 was an amendment and not a revision. So it is stare decisis and the Supreme Court is not going back to change its mind.

As a City Attorney who was very involved in Prop. 13 litigation I can provide a history.

What bothers me is that after Newton’s original article appeared, I wrote a short letter to The Times with a copy to Newton, pointing out this major error in his article but The Times chose not to publish the letter nor did Newton correct it in his latest article. Things must have changed since I studied journalism.

Here is my reply.

JackJack5 raises two points in his post: that Amador Valley resolved the question of whether Prop. 13 was a revision or an amendment and that I ignored his earlier post alleging that I’d committed a “major error” by not responding to his assertion that Amador Valley thus settled the question. Let me take one at a time:

First, the court in Amador Valley did find that Prop. 13 was an amendment, but it did not reach the argument that the plaintiffs in the new litigation have raised. In Amador Valley, the court considered arguments that the limits on property taxes imposed by the proposition altered the relationship between state and local governments and eroded “home rule” through its cap on property taxes. The court found that those relationships were not sufficiently affected to make Prop. 13 a revision but rather that it was properly considered an amendment. That’s important because if Prop. 13 were a revision, it would not have been valid -- revisions require the approval of the Legislature, not just the people.

But the court did not rule on another aspect of Prop. 13 -- its requirement that all other future taxes receive the approval of two-thirds of the Legislature, rather than a simple majority. That’s the issue in the current case, and the court has never directly spoken on it. The plaintiffs believe they thus have a new claim despite Amador Valley. JackJack5 may not agree with that claim, but it is, as I reported, novel and interesting, and full of profound implications. It’s worth noting, by the way, that the lawyer in the current case, William A. Norris, also was the lead lawyer in Amador Valley, so he knows something of this history, too.

As to the notion that I ignored the complaint about the column, that’s not just false but provably so. I filed this reply on our website, in which I addressed these issues, and I included this sentence in the follow-up column, which refers to Amador Valley, though not by name: “In 1978, the court declared the proposition an amendment, not a revision, but it did not address the two-thirds requirement in the Legislature, so that question remains open.”

Again, JackJack5 is free to read the case differently, but there’s an open question, and this lawsuit is exploring it. It seems to me that’s an important subject for Californians to think about; that’s why I’ve made it the subject of two columns and intend to return to it again. 


Newton: Could Prop. 13 fall?

Debunking the Prop. 13 debunkers

Proposition 13 lawsuit: Farce or threat?

-- Jim Newton

Photo: Howard Jarvis, chief sponsor of Proposition 13, signals victory as he casts his own vote at the Fairfax-Melrose precinct on June 6, 1978. Credit: Los Angeles Times

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