One of the biggest surprises of the March primary was that California voters rejected the proposed $15-billion bond measure that would have paid for school construction and much-needed maintenance around the state. It’s the first time in a quarter of a century that a statewide school bond measure failed.
But did voters really want to stiff kids and schools? Or was the bond tanked, at least in part, by its name: Proposition 13? Anecdotal evidence suggests it may have been.
In California, most voters hear “Proposition 13" and think of the 1978 taxpayer revolt that capped most property taxes at 1% of a home’s sale price and holds annual increases in assessed value to 2% or less. There probably isn’t another ballot measure in California history and politics as famous or infamous — depending on your worldview — as Proposition 13.
As it happens, Proposition 13 — the property tax law, not the school bond — is back in the news right now. There is a so-called split roll initiative proposed for the November ballot that would remove the Proposition 13 property-tax caps for certain commercial and industrial properties. This would be the most significant overhaul of Proposition 13 in decades.
So, there’s a pretty good chance that some voters were confused, or at least perturbed, enough by the appearance of Proposition 13 on the March ballot that they voted no. There was also some false information on social media portraying this Proposition 13 as a back-door way to repeal that Proposition 13. Now, an understandably frustrated Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell (D-Long Beach), who helped draft the school bond measure, wants California to retire the use of the number 13 for all future ballot measures.
There’s probably no harm in taking the number 13 out of the rotation. Although California may run into trouble if state leaders start exempting every other number identified with a famous ballot proposition. There’s 8 (same-sex marriage), 64 (legalizing marijuana), 187 (prohibiting public services to illegal immigrants), 209 (prohibiting the use of race in public employement) — just to start the list.
There’s less chance of getting another Proposition 209 in the future. Legislators changed the law in the 1990s so that ballot numbers reset every 10 years. That’s why in June 2018, voters passed Proposition 72, which gave a property tax exemption for rainwater capture systems, but then five months later, in November 2018, they passed Proposition 1, a $4-billion housing bond.
But Proposition 13 isn’t always cursed. In 2000 and again in 2010, voters passed Proposition 13s — a water bond and tax exemption for seismic retrofits, respectively. This year’s school bond measure may have been hurt by bad luck in a ballot numbering combined with bad timing with the coming split roll fight.
In the end, it probably doesn’t matter much whether the number is retired. Ultimately, the problem here is with voters. As is too often the case, they either didn’t bother to learn what this Proposition 13 really was about, or they didn’t care enough about public schools to vote for vital construction and maintenance projects.