Our three-day series of guest op-eds about major proposals for political reform last week here, here and here, generated a wave of thoughtful Calbuzzer comments, many focused on Prop. 13.
Several progressives expressed concern that neither the set of initiatives put forth by California Forward, nor the constitutional convention package sponsored by Repair California, would amend the Prop. 13 framework on taxation in a way that would allow dramatic political change.
The issue was raised most directly by Calbuzzer “David” who wrote:
The heart of the state’s dysfunction is the ability of simple majorities of voters to impose supermajority requirements in perpetuity. For instance, Prop 13’s 2/3 requirement on taxes was itself imposed by less than a 2/3 majority. Any “constitutional reform” which leaves this atrocity in place is not a true reform, but simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Since the current con-con proposals explicitly prohibit changing the 2/3 rule, they are yet another waste of time for a state that is rapidly running out of it.
Amid considerable debate and discussion on the site, however, a key difference emerged between the two sets of reforms:
The ballot measures submitted by California Forward would specifically prohibit changing the Prop. 13 requirement for a two-thirds vote needed to raise taxes, either in the Legislature or locally. But the convention agenda outlined in the Repair California initiative expressly would allow delegates to study and, if they saw fit, to propose to voters a reduction of the supermajority requirement.
Alert Calbuzzer Adrian Covert was the first to call attention to this little-noticed element of the convention initiatives. Covert, who blogs over at pacificvs.com wrote:
The Constitutional Convention proposals…specifically put all vote thresholds on the table. By voting in favor of a convention, voters will in-fact be giving convention delegates a clear mandate to do so.
The guy’s right on a very important point.
The concon package includes two proposed initiatives; the first seeks voter authorization to convene a convention, while the second broadly defines the issues to be considered by the delegates. In the second initiative, Section 83130 (a) (3) states that the convention is authorized to address:
Spending and Budgeting, including the budget process and related requirements, the term and balancing of a budget, voting thresholds, mandated spending and ways to increase fiscal accountability and efficiency.
In other words, the convention could, if it so chose, propose an amendment to alter the two-thirds rules on raising taxes. This reading of the measure was confirmed for us by Clint Reilly, who’s running the Repair California campaign. The group is a political spin-off of the Bay Area Council, whose CEO, Jim Wunderman, got the convention idea started.
To be clear, this is the only element of Prop. 13 that would be in play in either reform package. The convention specifically cannot deal with the Prop. 13 system for determining property taxes:
Section 83130 (b) The convention may also propose to change any statutory provision directly related to the proposed constitutional revision or amendment. The revision, any amendment, or any related statutory provision proposed by the convention may not include new language, or alter existing language, that (1) directly imposes or reduces any taxes or fees; (2) sets the frequency at which real property is assessed or re-assessed; or (3) defines “change in ownership” as it relates to any tax or fee . . .
When we first read this, it seemed to us that it left room to allow convention delegates to propose amending Prop 13 to put in place a split roll system, which would assess commercial property at a different (higher) rate than residential.
We thought the language on this was unclear so we interviewed Steve Miller of Hanson Bridgett who drafted the section. He told us it was worded to keep the convention from taking up the split roll. So that’s the word from the horse’s mouth.
Bottom line: As written, neither of the major reform packages aimed at the 2010 ballot leave much room for changing Prop. 13, but the constitutional convention leaves the door open for one major amendment that could have widespread political impact.