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How Proposition 13 Fueled a ‘Play to Play’ Ballot Initiative System

Los Angeles California, October 8, 2020: Voting ballot material. | Jorge Villalba / iStock
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"Prop. 22 is the Prop. 13 of our lifetime," a Californian recently declared on Twitter, urging followers to vote no on one of this year's state ballot measures. The fact that Prop. 13, a constitutional amendment passed in 1978, continues to be held as a touchstone is a testament to the extent that proposition is viewed as a before-and-after event — a clean cleave not just in the state's taxation system, but in the fabric of Californians' lives.

Proposition 13 has been called a “primal scream from angry voters [reluctant] to pay more money for government services.” Its passage meant city councils and local boards could no longer easily tax citizens for the services necessary to community life: for instance, schools, parks and libraries. Its success also encouraged the proliferation of statewide ballots, backed by massive amounts of corporate funding and driven forward by sophisticated mobilization networks.

Learn more about the "primal scream" that was Proposition 13 on "The First Angry Man." Watch now.

Prop. 13 mandated that property taxes — on all types of properties — would be capped at 1% of the purchase price. Property tax bills would increase by at most 2% every year after. Crucially, it also required two-thirds voter approval of local tax increases. While the proposition's approval made many ensconced homeowners happy, it also decimated one of the state's prime revenue sources. After Prop. 13 passed, California had just as many public services as before — but way less money to fund those services.

If you're not from California, there's a chance your home state doesn't have propositions — or, if it does, they're indirect, i.e. they have to pass through the state legislature before a voter would see them on the ballot. But inside the nation's most populous state, propositions — new laws or constitutional amendments introduced by citizens — are an influential, often hotly-contested piece of the biennial election cycle. This process, where voters both create and approve legislation, is called "direct democracy," which sounds great.

Is direct democracy actually great? The most accurate answer might be "sort of" or "yes, in theory." In practice, California's huge, so to get on the ballot, you need a ton of signatures — somewhere between 600,000 and a million this year, depending on the kind of legislation you're looking to pass. Then, after you get all those signatures, you need a massive marketing campaign to sell your idea to voters across the state. All of which takes money, a lot of it. California's propositions are often astroturfed; they're introduced by "regular citizens" on behalf of corporations (who are, lest we forget, people too).

After voters approved Prop. 13, property taxes, a reliable well of state income, dropped by roughly 60% in a single year. "Prop. 13 created a kind of magical thinking: that you could get something for nothing," says Manuel Pastor, a distinguished professor of sociology at the University of Southern California.  Over time, the results of this profound disinvestment became clear. In 1965, California had the fifth-highest per-pupil spending in the country; fifty years later, it ranked 41st. As it turns out, you get nothing for nothing.

In the reopening framework, the task force suggests limiting traditional classrooms to 16 students to allow for physical distancing. | Photo by Feliphe Schiarolli on Unsplash
An empty classroom | Feliphe Schiarolli / Unsplash

By limiting the collection of property tax, Prop. 13 also made cities increasingly dependent on sales tax, which encouraged the development of commercial rather than residential structures, adding pressure to its affordable housing crisis. The tax breaks Prop. 13 secured give breaks to longtime homeowners at the expense of more recent buyers, young families and renters, many of whom are people of color. "Because of redlining and other racist, exclusionary practices in real estate during the twentieth century, most homeowners were white at the time of Prop 13’s passage. This racial imbalance in homeownership rates persists today," writes E.J. Toppin, a staff researcher at U.C. Berkeley's Othering & Belonging Institute. "Since the provision discourages moving, it has made it harder for people of color to enter the housing market in California."

As legislators in the Democratic supermajority statehouse and the Democratic governor have long whinged that there's no money to support the state's priorities, you might expect one solution to have been raised in the past four decades: Reverse the Republican-led proposition that gutted its funding. Yeah, no. "Messing with 13 is a big fat loser," former Gov. Jerry Brown told the L.A. Times. Prop. 13, regularly referred to as the third rail of California politics, is considered a no-go. Push against it, and you'll drain your political capital just to lose. Big business is behind it; they'll bankroll campaigns. Seniors are behind it; they'll vote. And when you lose, you'll lose their checks.

While Prop. 15 would fiddle with one discrete piece of the first bit of Prop. 13 (the property taxes bit), it would not change the broader scaffolding Prop. 13 put in place (the state-level voter approval of any local tax increases piece). Still, it's taken a tremendous amount of work to push Prop. 15 forward. The organizers, a broad coalition that includes labor unions, social justice organizations and big tech foundations, collected 1.7 million signatures, which they allege is more than has ever been collected. The L.A. Times editorial board, which supports the proposition, called Prop. 15 "arguably the most consequential measure facing California voters on the Nov. 3 ballot." Maria Brenes, who is the executive director of InnerCity Struggle, says the proposition will "change the debate around the public safety net and bring justice to a situation that has led to deep disinvestment, that has hurt our children — particularly children of color, Black children, foster youth, English language learners, low-income children. This creates an opportunity we haven't had." In addition to in-depth press coverage by local outlets like The LAnd and KCRW, Prop. 15 recently gained Gov. Gavin Newsom's endorsement.

While Prop. 13 didn't create the state's ballot initiative frenzy  — California was one of the first states to implement ballot initiatives, way back in 1911 — the proposition's additional requirements for voter approval have certainly encouraged the expansion. Should Prop. 15 pass, every two years, Californians will still wade through pages of propositions. While their countrymen in Illinois or New Mexico might be in and out of the voting booth (or, this year, "voting booth") in a jiff, Californians will continue to stack voting guides against voting guides to figure out what they're voting for or against. CalMatters' voting guide kicks off thus: "Come rain, shine, pandemic or crippling recession, California voters can always count on one thing: a very long, very complicated ballot."

Screenshot of Ballot Brief 2020 on KCET.org
Learn more about this year's ballots up for consideration on "Ballot Brief." Find one-minute explanations of each ballot here

This year, a dozen initiatives up for a vote cover issues as diverse as data privacy (Prop. 24), affirmative action (Prop. 16) and how kidney dialysis clinics are operated (Prop. 23). Voter education is often controlled by the wealthiest special interest group invested; while grassroots coalitions approach individual voters, going door to door, major corporations blanket them, buying T.V. ads, text message services and billboards. This year, Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, Instacart and Postmates have even embedded ads against Prop. 22, which would regulate those services inside their apps. With more than $181 million spent on that campaign, Prop. 22 is the costliest ballot initiative in U.S. history, according to the L.A. Times. (That proposition's similarly-fervent but relatively shallow-pocketed defense, led by labor, has raised less than $5 million.)

The abundance of statewide ballot initiatives has three significant consequences. One, it's changed Sacramento, the state capitol, from a sleepy farm town to a lobbying hub. "Since the passage of Prop. 13, the biggest lobby in Sacramento has been local governments," Mathews says, "Local governments now have to pay lobbyists to go lobby for their own money, which is crazy."

Two, ballot propositions are geared to be sold and marketed to a regular person with, say, eleven other initiatives to skim, but effective policy often requires a more thoughtful written treatment. "We elect state senators and assemblypeople; it's their job to think through the complexities of policy and figure out where reasonable compromises can be made," Pastor says. "One of the things that happen when you do propositions is that they have to be really simple — and that can be problematic."

The third piece is a bit grayer, Smith says. In his 1998 book, Smith derided direct democracy as "faux populism." But Smith later found a more nuanced way of looking at it: "The initiative system is dominated by elites and special interests. But, ultimately, it does allow voters to feel more engaged," he says. For instance, Californians may not be motivated to vote in a general election; we know which way that political wind blows here. But we turn out to vote because, in addition to the down-ballot races, hugely impactful propositions are reliably up for consideration. "Prop. 13 brought California together in the sense that we all now share, are dependent on and have to suffer under the dysfunction of state-level governance," Mathews says. "In addition to our prisons, our university systems, and our water, our frustration with Sacramento is one of the few things that binds Californians together."

Top Image: Los Angeles California, October 8, 2020: Voting ballot material. | Jorge Villalba / iStock 

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