Prop 13 at 30

It’s ironic that as Proposition 13, California’s landmark property-tax initiative, was turning 30 years old (on June 6), media outlets were full of bad budget news. The state has overspent by $10.2 billion this year, reported the state controller, and next year’s deficit is estimated at $17 billion. Meanwhile, a Field Poll released June 6 indicates that voters remain highly supportive of Prop 13, with 57 percent saying they would vote for it again.

Similarly, a second Field Poll, released Tuesday (June 10), indicates that voters would rather cut spending to balance the state budget (63 percent) than raise taxes (26 percent). But when asked to choose which of five major areas of spending they would be most willing to cut, they cited prisons (47 percent). Few wanted cuts in higher education (8 percent), the public schools (5 percent) or health-care programs (4 percent), and only 23 percent favored cutting public-assistance programs.

Good luck. The state’s prisons are now under federal court order to upgrade their medical services and decrease overcrowding, at a cost of billions of dollars.

Republicans like to say California doesn’t have a budget crisis, it has a spending crisis. They’re wrong, as Californians seem to understand as they watch their schools, colleges and highways decline. In fact, tax cuts—beginning with Prop 13 and including $6 billion in cuts after 1993 and the $6 billion reduction in the vehicle license fee in 2003—are the principle source of the structural problem.

Prop 13 has been good for many California homeowners, but it’s time for a revision. The measure is patently unfair to young families and subsidizes business interests at others’ expense. The one bit of good news out of the Prop 13 Field Poll is that voters, by more than a 2-to-1 margin, would approve taxing commercial property differently than residences if it meant lowering residential tax rates. Legislators should begin there.