10% of Landowners Will Pay 92% of New Property Tax Revenue, Prop. 15 Supporters Say

San Francisco on Feb. 10, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

A new report from supporters of a November ballot measure aimed at increasing property taxes on commercial and industrial property in California finds that more than 90% of the additional property tax revenue Proposition 15 would generate will come from just 10% of the highest value properties.

The measure would amend the California Constitution to create a so-called "split roll" by reforming the 1978 measure Proposition 13, which slashed property taxes across the state and placed a limit on annual tax increases for both residential and commercial property.

Prop. 13 was sold as a way to create stable and predictable property tax bills, especially for seniors on fixed incomes. But critics have long complained that large corporations have unfairly benefitted from those protections, allowing them to keep assessed property values at well below market rates, resulting in a loss of revenue to schools and local government.

Prop. 15, which is financed primarily by the California Teachers Association and other unions, could generate a net increase in revenue between $6.5 and $11.5 billion dollars a year, with 40% of that going to K-12  schools and community colleges, and 60% going to local governments. The range of revenue estimates relates to growth in the real estate market.

The Schools and Communities First campaign, which collected signatures to put Prop. 15 before voters, exempted properties valued at $3 million or less, a change from an earlier version that was intended to allay fears of small businesses that they would be walloped by unaffordable property tax increases. Those properties will not be reassessed unless they belong to a landowner whose combined properties add up to more than $3 million in value.

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"Nearly 50% of the revenue raised by the measure will come from properties that have not been reassessed since before 2000," said Tim Gage, a former director for the California Department of Finance whose Blue Sky Consulting Group conducted the study for the Yes on 15 campaign using assessor's property tax data provided by the University of Southern California.

The report found that after accounting for exempted properties valued at under $3 million, properties valued at $5 million and more would generate more than 84% of the new revenue. Those properties are highly concentrated in places like San Francisco and Silicon Valley with high value commercial and industrial property that hasn't changed hands or been reassessed in many years, Gage said.

Critics, including John Kabateck, California director of National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), which advocates on behalf of small businesses, called the report a "veiled attempt to pull the wool over taxpayers and voters eyes."

Kabateck, and opponents of Prop. 15, said the final version of the measure would still end up harming many small businesses.

"They talk a lot about the exemption and the small businesses aren't hurt and that they're really just attacking the big guys, the big corporations," Kabateck said. "What they fail to mention is that the majority of small business owners, upwards of 80%, rent their property. That cost is passed on directly from property owners."

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The Yes on 15 campaign responds that if a majority of the property is occupied by small businesses, the reassessment would be deferred until 2025-26. Gage also noted that landlords who have benefitted from artificially low property taxes have likely not passed those savings along to their tenants.

Prop. 15 would leave property tax increases for homeowners untouched, and it generally exempts agriculture land from being reassessed. However the California Farm Bureau is opposing Prop. 15, saying protections for growers aren't ironclad and could end up raising their property taxes.

Conceived well before the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting recession, it's unclear how Prop. 15 along with high unemployment will affect voters' appetite for higher taxes on businesses.

In addition to unions, a wide array of Democrats are supporting Prop. 15, including former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris and several other former presidential candidates and members of Congress.

Opponents include the California Business Roundtable, the Chamber of Commerce and the California Taxpayers Association.

The measure will appear on the November 3 ballot.