The Battle Over the Future of Proposition 13 Is Underway

Volunteers and organizers gathered inside the RYSE Center in Richmond for a Schools & Community First canvassing event. (Julie Chang/KQED)

While some took the weekend as an opportunity to decompress from the workweek, others took it as a chance to get a jump start on what may be the largest political battle over state taxes in next year’s election: the future of Proposition 13.

On Saturday, dozens of people — including elected officials, members of community organizations, teachers and students — convened in Richmond and then spread across the city to collect petition signatures for an initiative aimed at reforming parts of the decades-old proposition.

Quick-and-dirty: Proposition 13

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This landmark proposition, passed in 1978, caps the amount of property tax a homeowner pays to 1% of the home’s market value when it sells and restricts increases in those values at 2% a year.

Simply put, a house that sold years ago at a much cheaper price pays significantly less in property taxes compared to a similar house sold at a much higher cost today. The law also applies to businesses.

But with less tax revenue coming in, public schools and local governments took a hit. The year after Proposition 13 passed, property tax revenue dropped 60%.

Despite controversies surrounding the bill, a 2018 report by CalMatters found that most residents still very much like Proposition 13. The report found that the approval rating for the proposition has remained consisted over the years — scoring above 50% since the early 2000s.

What’s Happening Now?

In an attempt to amass more funding, a coalition of over 400 groups and individuals launched a statewide campaign to revise parts of Proposition 13, known as the Schools & Communities First initiative.

The initiative calls for amending language around commercial property, not private homes.

John Gioia, who chairs the Contra Costa County's Board of Supervisors and is a supporter of the new initiative, said current property tax laws give corporations favorable treatment. He added that this initiative would force corporations to "pay their fair share" and invest those extra dollars to education, public safety, health and social services.

If the measure passes, the coalition estimates it could raise $12 billion a year in tax revenue.

For the initiative to make it onto next year’s November ballot, the coalition leaders said they need to collect nearly one million signatures.

Local Groups Taking To The Streets

In an effort to get ahead of the March deadline, local organizations across the state have begun canvassing to rally support for the initiative, including the nonprofit RYSE Youth Center in Richmond.

“There's a community of folks who want to see this happen across the state,” said Jamileh Ebrahimi, the center's Youth Organizing Director.

Jamileh Ebrahimi is standing in the center, holding a Schools & Communities First flyer at a canvassing event in Richmond's RYSE Center. Ebrahimi is the Youth Organizing Director at the RYSE Center. (Julie Chang/KQED)

On Saturday, the center partnered up with various other West Contra Costa groups to spread across Richmond and knock on doors.

“I want to be here and support [the campaign],” said high school junior Marlen Gonzalez. She’s one of the student fellows at the RYSE Center.

Gonzalez said she’d like the measure to pass so her school could have more mental health services and extracurriculars, like podcasting.

Marlen Gonzalez is standing in the center, holding a Schools & Communities First flyer at a canvassing event in Richmond's RYSE Center. Gonzalez is a fellow at the RYSE Center. (Julie Chang/KQED)

Gearing Up For Battle

But opponents argue that should this amendment pass, costs will go up for small businesses, consumers and possibly even homeowners.

The campaign calling on keeping Proposition 13 the way it is, known as the Californians to Stop Higher Property Taxes, says if taxes go up for businesses, consumers will be left to pick up the tab.

“If the landlord’s property rates go up ... the small business then has to pay more, then they have to charge their customers more,” said Robert Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable and co-chair of the pro-Proposition 13 campaign.

“This is going to be a hard-fought campaign,” said Lapsley. “We are under no illusions about that ... so we are gearing up for that battle.”

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