In Partnership with The 74

Analysis: There are 14 months to go before Election Day 2020, but unions’ campaign for split-roll property tax has already begun

Mike Antonucci | September 11, 2019



Mike Antonucci’s Union Report appears weekly at LA School Report

You have to give California’s public employee unions credit for their dogged determination to undo Proposition 13, the state’s landmark property tax limitation initiative approved by voters in 1978. Forty years of failed attempts and tens of millions of dues dollars spent without even managing to get an initiative to the voters have not dissuaded them.

This latest effort, dubbed the Schools and Communities First Initiative, actually began way back in 2015, when it was called the Make It Fair Initiative. It revived the idea of maintaining Prop 13 protections for residential homeowners but eliminating them for many commercial properties, creating what is commonly called a split-roll property tax. The campaign to place the measure on the November 2016 ballot was abandoned, even though the campaign committee boasted of a poll showing approval by 55 percent of likely voters.

But eager for a promised $11 billion a year from the initiative — including about $5.8 billion for K-14 education — supporters of Make It Fair did not disband, instead putting together a new campaign with a ballot initiative target date of November 2018. United Teachers Los Angeles and other unions contributed financially, but the California Teachers Association was not yet ready to commit. The campaign decided to postpone the initiative, even though UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl claimed polling was “very positive.” Ultimately, the campaign gathered enough signatures to place the measure on the November 2020 ballot.

Last January, the CTA decided to back the split-roll measure, paving the way for the possible infusion of millions of dollars from the union’s ballot initiative fund. The Schools and Communities First campaign committee currently has about $1.9 million cash on hand, twice as much as initiative opponents.

Despite issuing assurances of widespread public support, the campaign made another abrupt change in plans. Supporters decided to refile the initiative in an effort to address some of its major difficulties with voters. The most notable of these was defining a small business exemption (50 or fewer full-time equivalent employees) for commercial properties with a market value of $3 million or less. The properties of larger businesses will be reassessed at least every three years.

The campaign is still touting public approval, even though the most recent poll showed support of 54 percent of likely voters — 1 percentage point less Make It Fair’s chances in the 2015 poll. Historically, successful California initiative campaigns begin with a large majority of support that gradually gets whittled down by Election Day.

Refiling the initiative requires petitions to place the new language on the ballot. The campaign is aiming for 1.4 million signatures, with CTA pledging to collect 150,000 once the measure clears the state’s administrative hurdles. The signature-gathering is expected to begin in late October.

CTA plans to use signature-gathering for the initiative as an organizing opportunity among its members and hopes to create some synergy in collective bargaining as well. The union has already created a sample resolution for school boards to adopt in support of the initiative.

The union’s website now has a page in support of the campaign devoted to “tax fairness” that includes this graph:

Whenever CTA addresses the question of tax fairness, I feel obliged to point out that the union now collects more than $200 million annually in revenue and pays no corporate income taxes.

A lot can happen in the remaining 14 months before Election Day 2020, but the split-roll initiative keeps chugging on despite its many fits and starts.

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