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Nearly half of voters polled back Prop. 15, a property tax overhaul aimed at California businesses

Taxes on commercial property would rise if voters approve Proposition 15.
Commercial properties would be taxed on values more closely linked to the current real estate market if voters approve Proposition 15.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Nearly half of California voters in a new statewide poll support Proposition 15, a November ballot measure that would loosen tax limits on commercial and industrial properties and spend the resulting revenues on local governments and schools.

Though supporters dominate the survey released Wednesday by UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, only a plurality of likely voters, 49%, said they would cast a ballot for Proposition 15 while 34% said they will oppose it and 17% remain undecided.

Even so, the snapshot of the current political landscape offers more encouragement for liberal activists — who say the proposal is a sensible overhaul of 1978’s landmark Proposition 13 — than the measure’s business sector opponents, who predict it would strike a damaging blow to California’s struggling economy.

“I think the chances for passage are fairly decent,” said Mark DiCamillo, the poll’s director.

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Political analysts have long believed that most California ballot measures with support hovering near the 50% threshold in polls close to an election will come up short. Even when applying the poll’s margin of error — plus or minus two percentage points — it’s possible that support for Proposition 15 could be slightly stronger, but even then only at a razor-thin majority of the voters surveyed.

But DiCamillo said the conventional wisdom may not apply in an election where so many high-profile issues are struggling to get the attention of an electorate consumed less with state politics than the race for president and the dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In this new world, or at least this particular cycle where so many voters aren’t paying attention, I think any lead is significant,” DiCamillo said.

Supporters of Proposition 15 noted another public poll, released last week, found a similar level of support.

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“Throughout this campaign, the polling has been consistent: Wide margins of voters support closing corporate tax loopholes to bring investments back into local communities,” said Alex Stack, a spokesman for the Yes on 15 campaign.

Almost 6,000 likely voters took part in the online survey over a six-day period beginning on Sept. 9, weighing in after reading Proposition 15’s official ballot title and summary. California voters will begin receiving ballots in the mail in less than two weeks.

Since 1978, all property taxes in California have been levied under the system adopted by voters with Proposition 13. The value of a property is based on its most recent purchase price, even if it last changed hands decades earlier and similar properties nearby sold more recently and are subject to higher taxes. Proposition 13 limits the tax rate to 1% of the assessed value amount and that estimate can increase by no more than 2% a year.

The new ballot measure would keep all existing rules in place for residential properties. But commercial and industrial properties would quickly be reassessed, with updated values that better reflect current real estate market conditions — resulting in more taxes paid by their owners. Exemptions would be made for business properties worth less than $3 million and land used for agriculture.

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Opponents contend the measure’s impact will be far greater than advertised and insist that many of Proposition 15’s supporters are also on record as hoping to someday revisit current property tax limitations for homeowners.

“This survey underscores the simple point — as voters begin to realize that Prop. 15 is the largest property tax increase in state history, is the first step to undoing Prop. 13 in its entirety, and will have a devastating impact on small businesses and farmers, they are overwhelmingly rejecting it,” said Michael Bustamante, a spokesman for the No on 15 campaign.

Large corporations, likely to see substantially higher property tax payments, are perhaps the most obvious target of Proposition 15.

Overall, the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office projects the change would generate as much as $11.5 billion in new tax revenue a year once fully implemented. Sixty percent of the new funds would go to local governments, 40% to K-12 schools and community colleges.

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The UC Berkeley poll found Democrats and Republicans hold sharply different opinions about the commercial property tax increase, with a large majority of Democrats in support and a slightly larger majority of Republicans opposed.

Notable splits are also found by age, ethnicity and income. Opposition to Proposition 15 is strongest among white voters and those over age 50. In almost every other subset, including both low-income and high-income earners, a slim majority or more of voters surveyed say they favor the plan.

DiCamillo said the poll offers the clearest evidence so far that the anti-tax appeal of Proposition 13, one of the state’s most potent political brands, is waning.

“The cracks are now appearing,” he said. “You’re getting this new wave of voter who’s coming in and saying, ‘We need more money for the schools.’ They’re not tied to the past.”

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DiCamillo said supporters or those leaning in that direction might also take their cue from Gov. Gavin Newsom, who endorsed the commercial property tax change last week.

The early sparring over Proposition 15 has focused on whether its exemption for less valuable commercial properties is generous enough and whether businesses will ultimately pass along higher costs to consumers or choose to leave the state for lower-tax regions of the country.

For decades, critics of Proposition 13’s tax limits have insisted business properties should not receive the same protections as homeowners. They have pointed to a variety of large California-based corporations with property holdings still taxed on the land’s value dating back to the mid-20th century. Proposition 15 would begin the process of updating those values in 2022, with property owned by smaller companies reassessed beginning in 2025.


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