Yes on Proposition 13

The June 8 ballot includes five statewide measures, most of which raise familiar issues. For example, voters must decide whether the two ballot measures that propose to reform elections really can take politics out of, well, politics, and if so, whether that’s a good idea. Then they have to figure out if the two initiatives sponsored by private companies protect consumers and taxpayers, as the backers claim, or if they just help out the businesses.

With these thorny questions down the ballot, voters can feel some sense of relief that the first measure they’ll be confronted with is straightforward and easy to support. Proposition 13 would encourage property owners to update their buildings to better withstand earthquakes. It’s as close as a California ballot measure comes to being a no-brainer.

It’s a direct descendant of the more famous Proposition 13, the 1978 initiative that launched the property tax revolt. That earlier measure changed the law to ensure that property owners see low and predictable annual tax increases even when their property values soar. The assessed value is readjusted and taxed on the true market value only when the property is sold — or when significant new construction increases the value.

The Legislature later realized that the provision governing new construction might keep owners of dangerous unreinforced brick, clay or cement-block buildings from doing necessary earthquake retrofitting, for fear of being reassessed. So in 1984, it sent voters a measure to make clear that seismic upgrading of those buildings wouldn’t result in a tax reassessment for 15 years after the work is done. Voters passed it. Then in 1990, lawmakers proposed another amendment that gave themselves the power to exempt seismic improvements in other structures, without the 15-year limit. Voters passed that one too. But now some buildings are subject to the time limit and some aren’t. Proposition 13 — this year’s version — erases the distinction between the different kinds of buildings and eliminates the time limit. If it passes, earthquake safety improvements will result in higher taxes only after the building is sold.

Cities and counties might get slightly less tax revenue. Not a lot less, though, because many assessors haven’t found it worthwhile to keep track of seismic improvements on thousands of buildings.

The Times shares the deep reservations that many Californians have about the original Proposition 13. But as long as it remains part of the state Constitution, it should operate fairly and wisely. Exempting seismic upgrades from reassessment makes sense because it encourages owners to make their buildings more quake-resistant. We recommend a yes vote on Proposition 13.