Prop 13 Reform Gains Momentum

by Scott Lyons

In 1978, Californians passed Proposition 13, which capped annual increases in property tax assessments at 2% and allowed market-value reassessments only on a change of ownership. The proposition did what it was intended to do, and has held down tax revenues even as property values across the state skyrocketed.

The results have been dismal. Reduced budgets have forced local agencies to raise sales taxes, to run an endless series of one-off parcel tax measures, and to cut services. Our per-pupil school spending, for example, is ahead of only Nevada and Utah, according to Education Week magazine.

Worse, the measures enacted by Prop 13 applied not only to residences but also to commercial properties. And because ownership changes on commercial properties are very rare, the share of property tax paid by commercial property owners has dropped substantially as their tax assessments have fallen behind their market values.

Evolve-CA's chart of property tax payments in Contra Costa county.
Evolve-CA’s chart of property tax payments in Contra Costa county.

A new grassroots organization, Evolve California, is pushing for reform of Prop 13 and has begun making presentations to local government agencies and groups. According to their data, the share of Contra Costa property tax payments paid by homeowners rose from 48% in 1970 to over 73% in 2009, reflecting the decline in the commercial share. Evolve is asking groups to pass a resolution calling for support of “commercial property tax reform that will require non-residential commercial properties to be reassessed regularly while maintaining residential property owners’ protections under Prop 13.”

At the Oct 25 meeting of the West County Mayors’ Conference, chaired by El Cerrito Mayor Greg Lyman, a discussion about possibly scheduling a Prop 13 item on a future agenda drew a large and unfriendly crowd. Despite that, the mayors agreed to schedule several presentations on Prop 13 at their next meeting, Nov 21 at 8 AM at El Cerrito City Hall. Evolve will be among the presenters. The meeting is open to the public.

This is a great opportunity for ECDC members to voice support for Prop 13 reform and for splitting the rolls, as the Evolve resolution asks. There will be many attendees opposed to reform, so please plan on attending and adding your voice to those calling for fixes to this disastrous law.