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Earth to Democrats: Stop Talking About Prop 13

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Office of Sen. Mark Leno
    State Sen. Mark Leno is talking about a constitutional amendment lowering the threshold for school parcel taxes, a plan he's couched in terms of changing Prop 13, the "third rail" of California politics.

    The first rule of Fight Club was that you shouldn't talk about Fight Club.

    The first rule of fixing California's governing system -- which was shaped in no small part by Prop 13 -- is similar: Whatever you do, don't talk about Prop 13.

    Unfortunately, Democrats are violating this rule. And they are only making reform harder.

    Take Mark Leno, a San Francisco state senator. He's already touting a plan to reform Prop 13. The substance of his idea is to make it easier for local voters to raise parcel taxes to pay for schools.

    This change is a good idea. But there's no reason to tout it as a change in Prop 13. Indeed, it would be good politics -- and good policy for that matter -- to shut up about Prop 13 when doing this sort of thing.

    Why? Because Prop 13 remains a highly popular brand name -- even though many of Prop 13's rules, and the way those rules play out, are a big part of the reason why state governance doesn't work. 

    To put it simply, Prop 13 is popular. What Prop 13 has left the state is dysfunctional -- and very unpopular.

    So why talk about Prop 13 when you can talk about dysfunction? This isn't a matter of convenient political dishonesty. Prop 13 doesn't exist in a vacuum. It's the foundation of the budget and tax systems in California -- a highly centralized, and unpopular, system.

    But the public understands Prop 13 as a series of protections to limit property taxes. Reformers, and Democrats, and even Mark Leno would be wise, if they mention Prop 13 at all, to emphasize that they are not going to take on those property tax limits. Talk about how much they respect Prop 13 and its limits.

    What they should then talk about is the dysfunction Prop 13 wrought -- without mentioning Prop 13. The state's system is centralized because of two things Prop 13 did that had little to do with property taxes: requiring a two-thirds vote for the legislature to raise taxes, and a two-thirds vote of the people in a locality for the raising of local taxes.

    Those supermajorities have been built upon by the left and right, with tax and spending laws and constitutional amendments that make up the broken California system. Reformers should change that system, by emphasizing all the ways that centralization has undermined democracy, public services and local accountability. 

    Those are hard arguments -- but they are winning arguments. As long as Prop 13 is left out of it.

    Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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