By Steven Harmon

Posted: 12/29/2012 04:07:10 PM PST
Updated: 12/29/2012 05:43:02 PM PST

SACRAMENTO — The third rail of California politics may not be as deadly as once thought.

Three and a half decades after the passage of Proposition 13 shook the political landscape in California and sparked a taxpayer revolt across America, voters appear to be warming up to the idea of reforming the initiative as long as protections for homeowners stay intact.

And the apparent sea change in public attitudes, combined with the two-thirds majorities Democrats now hold in both chambers of the Legislature, has emboldened some politicians to take aim at the iconic measure.

“It is time for a fix, because Proposition 13 is broken,” said Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, who plans to introduce a bill
next year aimed at forcing businesses to pay higher property taxes.

The landmark 1978 measure rolled back property taxes and capped yearly increases until a property is sold, but critics say one of its unintended consequences was shifting more of the Golden State’s property tax burden from businesses to homeowners.

In addition to Ammiano’s bill, two constitutional amendments heading to the Legislature would allow voters to approve local parcel taxes for schools and libraries on a 55 percent vote, rather than the 66.7 percent now required.

In a recent poll by the Public Policy Institute of California, 58 percent of registered voters said they favored a “split roll” property tax, in which commercial properties would be reassessed annually or semiannually according to their market value, while taxes on residential properties would continue to be capped at 2 percent annual increases. And since Democrats took full control of the Legislature in last month’s election, some legislators have suggested that it’s time for a so-called “split roll.”

Proposition 13 has held a central place in California’s political discourse since voters approved it with nearly 65 percent of the vote in June 1978. It’s credited with fomenting the rise of the anti-government, anti-tax movement that swept Ronald Reagan into the White House.

“It really has symbolized an unwillingness to permit Sacramento to raise general taxes,” said Max Neiman, a fellow at UC Berkeley’s Institute for the Study of Government. “It’s suggested a kind of decline from the time California was a leader in an array of public services.”

But voters in the Golden State now seem to have a “nuanced understanding that we simply aren’t going to cut our way out of the fiscal deficit, and some kind of tax increases will have to take place,” Neiman said. He pointed to the passage of Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax measure, Proposition 30, as evidence that voters believe more revenues are needed, especially
Paul Gann, left, and Howard Jarvis, on the night of June 7, 1978, as their co-authored initiative Proposition 13 took a commanding lead in the California primary. (AP file)
if they come largely from the wealthy.

A ballot box battle over amending Proposition 13, however, won’t happen before November 2014. And it may come even later since Brown probably isn’t eager to share the ballot with an issue that could blow up in his face if, as is expected, he runs for re-election.

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