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The Great California Tax War

A New Series Chronicles Proposition 13’s Day of Reckoning

Inside the epic ballot fight to reform California’s “taxpayer rebellion” initiative.

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One of the more effective TV ads Governor Pat Brown used in his successful reelection campaign against Richard Nixon in 1962 featured images of the California Aqueduct and of a school classroom. “Water flows, a child learns,” a voice in that long-ago spot intoned, as more footage extolled the accomplishments that were then catapulting the Golden State into the forefront of the American Dream. Those pharaonic projects – the dams, the schools, the highways – required taxes, and Californians had shown a willingness to pay them in return for the benefits that a progressive state could provide.

But four years later Brown would lose the governor’s mansion to Ronald Reagan, partly thanks to anti-tax resentment among some Californians that would metastasize into a full-blown “taxpayer rebellion” with the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978. As reporter Bobbi Murray explains in our new series, The Great California Tax War, Prop. 13 drastically reduced home property taxes – which admittedly seemed to be spiraling out of control – to a bare minimum, and would have pervasive consequences for California. The state began 40-plus years wandering through the wilderness of austerity that it has never quite escaped, despite periodic attempts in the legislature or at the ballot box to chip away at Prop. 13. Several generations of school children have grown up taking broken windows and dry drinking fountains for granted – not to mention the absence of marching bands, theater programs and driver education.

This year’s Schools and Communities First ballot initiative marks the most serious effort in decades to repair the damage caused by Prop. 13, particularly to our education system. The measure, Proposition 15, would leave intact Prop. 13’s restrictions against raising taxes on homeowners but change the way commercial properties are assessed and taxed. As Murray points out, time has practically stood still for many corporate properties – in Los Angeles County, 57 percent of industrial and commercial properties haven’t been reassessed for two decades.

Obviously this money is crucial for a state facing a pandemic-induced budget shortfall of $54.35 billion. Yet Prop. 15’s passage is far from certain, thanks to ferocious opposition from entrenched real estate and corporate interests that have already spent $4.2 million to portray Prop. 15 as a Trojan Horse attack on Prop. 13’s homeowner tax restrictions. Not only that, but the state’s beleaguered Republican Party has an existential interest in waving the banner of “tax resistance” – nothing over the years has so effectively rallied its base than the specter of tax increases.

In the weeks ahead, The Great California Tax War will examine the organizations and money behind the campaign to defeat Prop. 15, as well as the undeniable ability of their campaign messaging to sow fear and confusion among voters. The series will also look at how the ballot measure was carefully crafted to exempt most small businesses and farms from higher taxes, and how the campaign to pass Prop. 15 is relying on a massive grassroots, get-out-the-vote drive. California does things big, and the fight to take on part of Prop. 13’s legacy promises to produce the largest, loudest election battle royal in recent memory.


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