California Proposition 13 (1978)
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Proposition 13 (officially named the People's Initiative to Limit Property Taxation) was an amendment of the Constitution of California enacted during 1978, by means of the initiative power. It was approved by California voters on June 6, 1978. It was declared constitutional under federal law by the United States Supreme Court in the case of Nordlinger v. Hahn, 505 U.S. 1 (1992). Proposition 13 is embodied in Article XIII A of the California Constitution.
Proposition 13 received an enormous amount of publicity, not only in California, but throughout the United States. Passage of the initiative presaged a "taxpayer revolt" throughout the country that is sometimes thought to have contributed to the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency during 1980. Thirteen (13) of thirty (30) anti-tax ballot measures passed that year. The proposition has been called the "third rail" (meaning "untouchable subject") of California politics, and it is not popular politically for lawmakers to attempt to change it. After the proposition was passed the taxes, on average, dropped 57%. Proposition 13 has been part of the California Constitution for 39 years, 3 months, and 19 days.
- 1 Purpose
- 2 Background
- 3 The measure
- 4 Outcome
- 5 Analysis
- 5.1 Positive effects
- 5.2 Negative effects
- 5.2.1 Sales disincentives, less individual mobility, higher housing costs
- 5.2.2 Effects on commercial property owners
- 5.2.3 On the California tax structure
- 5.2.4 On sales and other taxes
- 5.2.5 On cities and localities
- 5.2.6 On education and public services
- 6 Aftermath
- 7 Amendments
- 8 Proposition 218 (1996) (“Right to Vote on Taxes Act”)
- 9 See also
- 10 Notes
- 11 References
- 12 Further reading
- 13 External links
Limit the tax rate for properties
Section 1. (a) The maximum amount of any ad valorem tax on real property shall not exceed one percent (1%) of the full cash value of such property. The one percent (1%) tax to be collected by the counties and apportioned according to law to the districts within the counties.— California Constitution Article XIII A
Proposition 13 declared property taxes were to be assessed their 1975 value and restricted annual increases of the tax to an inflation factor, not to exceed 2% per year. A reassessment of the property tax can only be made a) when the property ownership changes or b) there is construction done.
The state has been given the responsibility of distributing the property tax revenues to local agencies.
Voting Requirements State Taxes
In addition to decreasing property taxes and changing the role of the state, Proposition 13 also contained language requiring a two-thirds (2/3) majority in both legislative houses for future increases of any state tax rates or amounts of revenue collected, including income tax rates and sales tax rates.
Voting Requirements Local Taxes
Proposition 13 also requires two-thirds (2/3) voter approval in local elections for most local governments proposing to increase special taxes. The two-thirds voter approval requirement for special taxes under Proposition 13 has also been applied by a California appellate court to a local tax increase initiative measure proposed by the electorate exercising the local initiative power.
There are several accounts of the origins of Proposition 13. The evidence for or against these accounts varies.
One explanation is that older Californians with fixed incomes had increasing difficulty paying property taxes, which were rising as a result of California's population growth, increasing housing demand, and inflation. Due to severe inflation during the 1970s, reassessments of residential property increased property taxes so much, that some retired people could no longer afford to remain in homes they had purchased long before. An academic study found support for this explanation, reporting that older voters, homeowners, and voters expecting a tax increase were more likely to vote for Proposition 13.
Another popular explanation is Proposition 13 drew its impetus from the 1971 and 1976 California Supreme Court rulings in Serrano v. Priest, which somewhat equalized California school funding by redistributing local property taxes from wealthy to poor school districts. According to this explanation, property owners in affluent districts perceived that the taxes they paid were no longer benefiting their local schools, and chose to cap their taxes.
A basic problem with this explanation is that the Serrano decision and school finance equalization were actually quite popular among California voters. It is true that Californians who voted for Proposition 13 were less likely than other voters to support school finance, but Proposition 13 supporters were not more likely to oppose the Serrano decision, and on average they were typically supportive of both the Serrano decision and of school finance equalization.
Another explanation that has been offered is that spending by California's government had increased dramatically during the years prior to 1978, and taxpayers sought to limit further growth. The evidence supporting this explanation is limited, as there have been no studies relating Californians' views on the size and role of government to their views on Proposition 13. However, it is true that California's government had grown. Between 1973 and 1977, California state and local government expenditures per $1000 of personal income were 8.2 percent higher than the national norm. From 1949 to 1979, public sector employment in California outstripped employment growth in the private sector. By 1978, 14.7 percent of California's civilian work force were state and local government employees, almost double the proportion of the early 1950s.
In addition, during the early 1960s, there were several scandals in California involving county assessors. These assessors were found rewarding friends and allies with artificially low assessments, with tax bills to match. These scandals led to the passage of AB 80 in 1966, which imposed standards to hold assessments to market value. The return to market value in the wake of AB 80 could easily represent a mid-double-digit percentage increase in assessment for many homeowners. As a result, a large number of California homeowners experienced an immediate and drastic rise in valuation, simultaneous with rising tax rates on that assessed value, only to be told that the taxed monies would be redistributed to distant communities. The ensuing anger started to form into a backlash against property taxes which coalesced around Howard Jarvis, a former newspaperman and appliance manufacturer, turned taxpayer activist in retirement.
Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann were the most vocal and visible advocates of Proposition 13. Officially named the "People's Initiative to Limit Property Taxation," and known popularly as the "Jarvis-Gann Amendment," Proposition 13 was listed on the ballot through the California ballot initiative process, a provision of the California Constitution that allows a proposed law or constitutional amendment to be offered to voters if advocates collect a sufficient number of signatures on a petition. Proposition 13 passed with almost 65% of those who voted in favor and with the participation of nearly 70% of registered voters. After passage, it became article XIII A of the California Constitution.
Under Proposition 13, the annual real estate tax on a parcel of property is limited to 1% of its assessed value. This "assessed value," may be increased only by a maximum of 2% per year, until and unless the property has a change of ownership. At the time of the change in ownership the low assessed value may be reassessed to complete current market value that will produce a new base year value for the property, but future assessments are likewise restricted to the 2% annual maximum increase of the new base year value.
If the property's market value increases rapidly (values of many homes in California appreciated at annual rates averaging more than 10% in the decade ending with 2005) or if inflation exceeds 2%, the differential between the owner's taxes and the taxes a new owner would have to pay can become quite large.
The property may be reassessed under certain conditions other than a change of ownership, such as when additions or new construction occur. The assessed value is also subject to reduction if the market value of the property declines below its assessed value, for example, during a real estate slump. Reductions of property valuation were not provided for by Proposition 13 itself, but were made possible by the passage of Proposition 8 (SCA No. 67) during 1978 that amended Proposition 13. Such a real estate slump and downward reassessments occurred during 2009 when the California State Board of Equalization announced an estimated reduction of property tax base year values due to negative inflation. The property tax in California is an Ad valorem tax meaning that the tax assessed (generally) increases and decreases with the value of the property.
|Invalid or blank votes||236,145||3.4|
|Registered voters and turnout||10,130,000||23.4|
Tax predictability and community stability
Proposition 13 is said to have provided predictability for property owners, and increased community stability. While progressive income tax structures affect higher incomes, property taxes take a higher percentage of lower incomes. State income tax and sales tax were started during the Great Depression, when taxpayer resistance began due to property taxes that unemployed workers could not pay. According to the Center for Governmental Analysis, between fiscal years 2000 and 2005 property tax revenue has increased 22.11%, while personal income per capita has increased 13.80% and general per capita revenue 21.93%.
Reduction in taxes
Other estimates show that the hope that Proposition 13 would reduce California citizen's overall tax burden and State spending has proven false. California has the highest marginal income tax rate in the nation, is in the top ten highest corporate tax and sales tax rates nationally.
Property tax equity
The California Taxpayers Association, citing "The Future of Proposition 13 in California," California Policy Seminar, March 1993, University of California, authored by Arthur O’Sullivan, Terri A. Sexton, and Steven M. Sheffrin, argue that the tax is progressive, and that acquisition-value assessments seem to provide property tax equity.
Decreased funding volatility
The restriction of tax increases for previously owned property has decreased the volatility of funding for municipalities. Pre-Proposition 13 property tax revenue was almost three times as volatile.
During 2009, the California State Board of Equalization noted that only five times since the passage of Proposition 13 was the annual increase less than the permitted 2%, and that the estimated adjustment for 2010 would be negative, for the first time since the passage of Proposition 13.
David Doerr argues that the "acquisition value system" acts as a control to overspending due to high real estate values, while permitting a source of revenue growth in times of recession. Local governments would then have to decrease spending more severely when the housing market decreased.
Positive fiscal impact from new home construction
According to the California Building Industry Association, construction of a median priced house results in a slight positive fiscal impact, as opposed to the position that housing does not "pay its own way". The trade association argues that this is because new homes are assessed at the value when they are first sold. Additionally, due to the higher cost of new homes, the trade association claims that new residents are more affluent and may provide more sales tax revenues and use less social services of the host community.
Popular with voters (primarily homeowners)
Proposition 13 remains popular among California's likely voters, who are mostly homeowners. Among likely voters, 53% described Proposition 13 as "mostly a good thing" while 33% responded that it was "mostly a bad thing" in a 2006 Public Policy Institute of California survey. For adults who are not likely voters (mostly renters), Proposition 13 was unpopular — only 29% approval to 47% disapproval. Among California adults, overall approval was 47% approval to 38% disapproval. Periodic newspaper accounts report high voter approval.
Taxes targeted to services
Others argue that the real reason for the claimed negative effects is lack of trust for elected officials to spend the public's money wisely. Business improvement districts are one means by which property owners have chosen to tax themselves for additional government services. Property owners find that these targeted levies are more palatable than general taxes.
Tenure of households
The proposition allowed for homeowners to increase the amount of stay in their homes by 1.04 years and renters by .79 years. This lasted from 1970 to 2000.
Sales disincentives, less individual mobility, higher housing costs
Proposition 13 alters the balance of the housing market because it provides disincentives for selling property, in favor of remaining at the current property and modifying or transferring to family members to avoid a new, higher property tax assessment. More detailed evidence of this is provided in the book Property Taxes and Tax Revolts: The Legacy of Proposition 13.
California has more rigidity and friction in both its housing market and in renting than other states; one study comparing California's market to that of other states found that between 1970 and 2000, tenure of owned homes increased by 10% and in renting by 19%, and attributed this change to Proposition 13. Other studies have found that increased tenure in renting can be attributed in part to rent control. D.R. Mullins states that “prospects of increased property tax liabilities triggered by residence or business location changes likely constrain mobility and filtering in the housing and property markets.”(pp. 118)
Moreover, evidence shows that because homeowners would allegedly keep their homes for longer, young households often rent for longer before buying a house. Because Proposition 13 could be a disincentive to sell, there is less turnover among owners near the older downtown areas, resulting in an upward pressure on price appreciation in these areas.
Proposition 13 reduces property tax revenue for municipalities in California. They are forced to rely more on state funding and therefore may lose autonomy and control. The amount of taxes available to the municipality in any given year largely depends on the number of property transfers taking place. However, since existing property owners have an incentive to remain in their property and not sell, there are fewer property transfers under this type of property tax system.
California also has high rates of migrants from other countries and states, which has contributed to more demand for housing, and it has low amounts of moderately priced housing due to the increased property tax liability after a sale. In effect, because the different tax treatment makes real estate more valuable to the current owner than to any potential buyer, selling it makes no economic sense.
Effects on commercial property owners
Owners of commercial real estate benefited under the original rules of Proposition 13: If a corporation owning commercial property (such as a shopping mall) was sold or merged, but the property stayed technically deeded to the corporation, ownership of the property could effectively have changed without triggering Proposition 13's provisions. Under current law, a change of control or ownership of a legal entity causes a reassessment of its real property as well as the real property of entities that it controls.
Corporations often avoid reassessment by limiting portion of ownership by purchasing in groups where no single party owns more than 50%. For example: "In 2002 ... wine barons E&J Gallo purchased 1,765 acres of vineyards in Napa and Sonoma from Louis M. Martini. But the deal avoided a reassessment, because 12 Gallo family members individually obtained minority interests."
On the California tax structure
Unequal assessments based on purchase date result in regressive taxation
Proposition 13 sets the assessed value of properties at the time of purchase (known as an acquisition value system), with a possible 2% annual assessment increase. As a result, properties of equal value can have a great amount of variation in their assessed value, even if they are next to each other. The disparity grows when property prices appreciate by more than 2% a year. The Case-Shiller housing index shows prices in Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco appreciated 170% from 1987 (the start of available data) to 2012 while the 2% cap only allowed a 67% increase in taxes on homes that were not sold during this 26-year period.
On sales and other taxes
Other taxes created or increased
Local governments in California now use imaginative strategies to maintain or increase revenue due to Proposition 13 and the attendant loss of property tax revenue (which formerly went to cities, counties, and other local agencies). For instance, many California local governments have recently sought voter approval for special taxes such as parcel taxes for public services that used to be paid for entirely or partially from property taxes imposed before Proposition 13 became law. These public services include: streets, water, sewer, electricity, infrastructure, schools, parks, police protection, firefighting units, and penitentiary facilities. Provision for such taxes was made by the 1982 Community Facilities Act (more commonly known as Mello-Roos). Sales tax rates have also increased from 6% (pre-Proposition 13 level) to 8.25% and even higher in some local jurisdictions.
This subsequently led to the passage of California Proposition 218 in 1996 ("Right to Vote on Taxes Act") that constitutionally requires voter approval for local government taxes and some nontax levies such as benefit assessments on real property and certain property-related fees and charges.
On cities and localities
Greater effect on coastal metropolitan areas than on rest of state
Proposition 13 disproportionately affects coastal metropolitan areas, such as San Francisco and Los Angeles, where housing prices are higher, relative to inland communities with lower housing prices. According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, more research would show whether benefits of Proposition 13 outweigh the redistribution of tax base and overall cost in lost tax revenue.
Loss of local government power to state government
Local governments have become more dependent on state funds, which has increased state power over local communities. The state provides "block grants" to cities to provide services, and bought out some facilities that locally administer state-mandated programs.
Resultant planning changes, cost or degradation of services, new fees
Due to the reduction in revenue generated from property tax, local governments have become more dependent on sales taxes for general revenue funds, which some maintain has resulted in the “fiscalization of land use”. The fiscalization of land use means that land use decisions are influenced by the ability of a new development to generate revenue. Proposition 13 has created an incentive for local governments to attract new commercial developments such as big box retailers and car dealerships instead of residential housing developments. This is the result of commercial development's ability to generate revenue for the general fund through sales tax and business licenses tax. The jobs and ongoing sales tax those stores provide may discourage growth of other sectors and job types that may provide better opportunities for residents. Office and retail development are further incentivized because they do not cost the local governments as much as residential developments in terms of public services. Additionally, cities have decreased services and increased fees to compensate for the shortfall, with particularly high impact fees levied on developers building new houses or industrial outlets. Impact fees are a way to impose the cost of the additional services and infrastructure that new developments will require. These costs are typically shifted to the building's buyer, who may be unaware of the thousands in fees included with the building's cost.
On education and public services
Effect on public schools
California public schools, which during the 1960s had been ranked nationally as among the best, have decreased to 48th in many surveys of student achievement. Some have disputed the attribution of the decline to Proposition 13's role in the change to state financing of public schools, because schools financed mostly by property taxes were declared unconstitutional (the variances in funding between lower and higher income areas being deemed to violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution) in Serrano vs. Priest, and Proposition 13 was then passed partially as a result of that case. California's spending per pupil was the same as the national average until about 1985, when it began decreasing, which resulted in another referendum, Proposition 98, that requires a certain percentage of the state's budget to be directed towards public education.
Giving context to the externalities caused by Proposition 13 on public education and identifying causal relationships between data are necessary components to an objective analysis of Proposition 13. Prior to implementation of Proposition 13, the state of California saw significant increases in property tax revenue collection “with the share of state and local revenues derived from property taxes increasing from 34% at the turn of the decade to 44% in 1978 (Schwartz 1998).”  The immediate effect of the passage of Proposition 13 on state budgets saw a sharp decrease in both state and local tax collection a year into implementation. Since the 1970s there has been a steady decline, with moderate increases from 1999-2008, in school spending as a share of the economy in California while simultaneously rising in the rest of the United States during this same time period according to the National Education Association. A year prior to implementation of Proposition 13 (1977-1978), California’s school spending equaled 3.76% of the state personal income while that of the rest of the U.S. equaled 4.20%. Within the decade of implementation, California’s school spending as a percentage of income decreased, reaching “3.17% in fiscal year 1983-1984.
UCSD Economics professor Julian Betts states: “What all this means for spending is that starting around 1978-1979 we saw a sharp reduction in spending on schools. We fell compared to other states dramatically, and we still haven’t really caught up to other states.”  From 1977, in California there has been a steady growth of class sizes compared to the national average, “which have been decreasing since 1970.”  The shortage in funds translated to decreased spending per student in the years following passage of Proposition 13. During the 1970s, school spending per student was almost equal to the national average. Using discount rate, “measured in 1997-1998 dollars, California spent about $100 more per capita on its public schools in 1969-1970 than did the rest of the country."  Since 1981-1982, California consistently has spent less per student than the rest of the U.S. as demonstrated by data collected by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis and by the Public Policy Institute of California  This has resulted in increased pupil-to-teacher ratios in K-12 public schools in California. Professor Betts observes that “pupil-teacher ratios start to skyrocket in the years immediately after 1978, and a huge gap opens up between pupil-teacher ratios here and in the rest of the country, and we still haven’t recovered from that." 
Loss of funding for libraries, other public services
Public libraries have seen a decrease of funding from cities. Police departments received generally the same amount of funding, from 15% in 1978 to 16% during 1995. Cities also decreased water, gas and electricity expenses.
The United States Supreme Court held, in Nordlinger v. Hahn, that Proposition 13 was constitutional. Justice Harry Blackmun, writing the majority opinion, noted that California had a "legitimate interest in local neighborhood preservation, continuity, and stability" and that it was acceptable to treat owners who have invested for some time in property differently from new owners. If one objected to the rules, they could choose not to buy. Stephanie Nordlinger, the plaintiff in this case, sued the Los Angeles County Tax Assessor Kenneth Hahn on the grounds of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Nordlinger purchased a property in the Los Angeles area and, under the provisions of Proposition 13, was required to have the property reassessed at a new value. The reassessed value of Nordlinger’s property raised her tax rates by 36%, while her neighbors continued to pay significantly lower rates on their property. Disheartened by the disparity in taxation, Nordlinger viewed this reassessment as favoritism in the eyes of the law and elected to bring charges up on the Los Angeles County Tax Assessment office and its primary assessor, Kenneth Hahn. Pleading that the reassessment of her property did not grant equal protection, stated as a right in the 4th Amendment, Nordlinger took Hahn to court and appealed in the Supreme Court in 1981. The court ruled in favor of Hahn, affirming Proposition 13 as constitutional.
In the 2003 California recall election in which Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected governor, his advisor Warren Buffett suggested that Proposition 13 be repealed or changed as a method of balancing the state's budget. Schwarzenegger, believing that such an act would be inadvisable politically and could end his gubernatorial career, said, "I told Warren that if he mentions Proposition 13 again he has to do 500 sit-ups."
In January 2011, California Governor Jerry Brown was quoted as saying that it wasn't Proposition 13 that was the problem, but "It was what the Legislature did after 13, it was what happened after 13 was passed" because the legislature reduced local authorities' power.
In December 2011, a team of lawyers headed by a former federal appeals court judge unsuccessfully sued to overturn the Proposition 13 requirement that a two-thirds (2/3) vote of the Legislature is required to increase State taxes.
In an interview in 2014, California Governor Jerry Brown lamented that he hadn't built up a "war chest" with which to campaign for an alternative to Proposition 13. Governor Brown said he'd learned from his failure in the mid-1970s to build a war chest that he could have used to push an alternative to Proposition 13. Governor Brown was definitive that he would not seek to change the law, a third rail in California politics. "Prop. 13 is a sacred doctrine that should never be questioned," he said.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the real estate website, Trulia calculated that in 2015 Proposition 13 provided property owners $12.5 billion in benefits. Affluent coastal cities with high home value appreciation and long resident tenure benefited the most, with San Francisco property owners paying an effective tax rate of 0.6%. That year, Palo Alto, California property owners' effective tax rate of 0.42% was the lowest in the nation.
- California Proposition 8 (November 1978) allowed for a reassessment of real property values in a declining market.
- California Proposition 60 (1986) allowed homeowners over the age of 55 to transfer the assessed value of their present home to a replacement home if the replacement home is located in the same county, is of equal or lesser value, and purchased within 2 years of sale.
- California Proposition 39 (2000) lowered the required supermajority necessary for voters to impose local school bond acts from two-thirds (2/3) of the votes cast to fifty-five percent (55%).
- California Proposition 26 (2010) added a constitutional definition of "tax" for purposes of the two-thirds legislative vote requirement for state taxes under Proposition 13.
Proposition 218 (1996) (“Right to Vote on Taxes Act”)
Proposition 218 was an initiative constitutional amendment approved by California voters on November 5, 1996. Called the “Right to Vote on Taxes Act,” Proposition 218 was sponsored by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association as a constitutional follow-up to Proposition 13.
Proposition 218 established strict constitutional limits on the ability of local governments to levy benefit assessments on real property and property-related fees and charges such as those for utility services to property. The assessment and property-related fee and charge reforms contained in Proposition 218 were in response to California local governments pernicious use of revenue sources that circumvented the two-thirds vote requirement to raise local taxes under Proposition 13.
Proposition 218 also requires voter approval before a local government, including a charter city, may impose, increase, or extend any local tax. Proposition 218 also constitutionally reserves to local voters the right to use the initiative power to reduce or repeal any local tax, assessment, fee or charge, including provision for a significantly reduced petition signature requirement to qualify a measure on the ballot.
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- Proposition 2½, the Massachusetts version of Proposition 13, passed in 1980.
- Oregon Ballot Measure 5 (1990), property tax cap in Oregon.
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- Campbell, Ballard C. "Tax revolts and political change," Journal of Policy History, Jan 1998, Vol. 10 Issue 1, pp. 153–78
- Marmer, Nancy. "Proposition 13: Hard Times for the Arts," Art in America, September/October 1978, pp. 92–94.
- Martin, Isaac William. The Permanent Tax Revolt. Stanford University Press, 2008.
- O’Sullivan, Arthur, Terri A. Sexton and Steven M. Sheffrin, Property Taxes and Tax Revolts: The Legacy of Proposition 13, Cambridge Press, 1995. Paperback reissued 2007.
- Sexton, Terry A. and Steven M. Sheffrin, Proposition 13 in Recession and Recovery, Public Policy Institute of California, 1998.
- Sheffrin, Steven, "Re-Thinking the Fairness of Proposition 13," in Jack Citrin, ed., Proposition 13 at 30, Berkeley, CA: Berkeley Public Policy Press, 2009.
- Smith, D. A. "Howard Jarvis, Populist Entrepreneur: Reevaluating the Causes of Proposition 13". Social Science History (1999). 23 (2): 173–210. in JSTOR [inaccessible: behind a paywall]
- Guide to the Judith Stanley Subject Files on Proposition 13. Special Collections and Archives, The UC Irvine Libraries, Irvine, California.
- California Voters Pamphlet, June 6, 1978
- Full text of Article 13A
- Legal Constraints on Local Control
- Proposition 13: Love it or Hate it, its Roots Go Deep
- Tax and Expenditure Limitation in California: Proposition 13 & Proposition 4
- Full Text of Volume 505 of the United States Reports at www.supremecourt.gov
- Howard Jarvis discusses Proposition 13 a few weeks before the 1978 election in this sound recording from the Commonwealth Club records at the Hoover Institution.