Proposition 13

By Martin Wisckol / Staff Columnist
June 5, 2015 – Updated 11:39 p.m.

Activists are again agitating for a ballot measure that would end Proposition 13 protections for commercial buildings. But while a poll last week shows a bare majority support such a “split roll” plan, a decent campaign by opponents could quickly erode that advantage.

The historic 1978 ballot measure reined in spiraling property taxes in the state by limiting the amount that real estate could be taxed to a maximum of 1 percent of its value when sold and subsequent increases of no more than 2 percent annually.

A particularly strong campaign pitch at the time of Prop. 13’s passage was the example of fixed-income seniors priced out of their lifelong homes by rocketing property taxes.

But there’s been growing criticism of the inclusion of commercial buildings, with the argument that longstanding businesses are not paying their fair share – many are paying taxes for little more than the 1978 values of their property, while new businesses are at an unfair disadvantage of paying taxes at current rates.

Lenny Goldberg and his California Tax Reform Association have been advocating for a split roll for years. And a coalition of labor union and progressive social groups formed this year as Make It Fair, pushing for a split roll to increase funding for education and other programs. The coalition is preparing for a possible ballot measure.

But opposition is formidable. Leaders of the state Chamber of Commerce and the California Taxpayers Association recently formed Californians to Stop Higher Property Taxes to fight any split-roll proposals. They argue that the increased burden on businesses would drag down a business community still emerging from the recession.

A successful opposition campaign might also raise the specter of commercial properties being just the first step toward eliminating the residential protections, despite split-roll advocates’ claim they have no interest in going after homeowners.

So the fact that only 50 percent of voters favored a split roll in the Public Policy Institute of California’s survey released last year – and 44 percent opposed it – makes the change far from certain.

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