Will Proposition 13 Become A COVID-Related Casualty?

Thursday, June 4, 2020
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Not that it’s to be confused with a criminal act, but California governor Gavin Newsom’s decision last month to issue November mail-in ballots to all registered voters in the Golden State raises the question of motive.

Let’s start on the high road: Newsom did it because he’s genuinely concerned about his constituents’ ability to get the polls this fall given California’s current health struggles. His May 8 executive order says as much:

“Whereas it is unknown to what degree COVID-19 will pose a threat to public health in November, and California and its counties must begin in taking action now—to procure supplies, secure polling places, enlist volunteers, and draw up plans, among other steps —to ensure that the November 3, 2020 General Election is held in a manner that is accessible, secure, and safe; and

Whereas to preserve public health in the face of the threat of COVID-19, and to ensure that the November election is accessible, secure, and safe, all Californians must be empowered to vote by mail, from the safety of their own homes.”

Of course, there’s also a “low-road” consideration: the governor issued the executive order because he cared little for the democratic process and, frankly, because he knew he could with no resistance; far better to release the executive order than to drag it through public vetting hearings during which Republicans, though lacking the votes to block a bill, could at least cry foul and attempt to draw attention to their legal concerns.

I’d like to suggest a third road somewhere between high and low: Newsom is sincere about safeguarding voters should a second COVID wave strike this fall, but he also has an eye on at least one November outcome.

What’s the governor looking at?

It’s not the vote at the top of the ballot.

Four years ago, President Trump lost California by nearly 4.27 million votes (31.6% of the tally). How large a gulf is that? Even if each every one of California’s 4.9 million registered Republicans bothered to vote, the added turnout wouldn’t bridge the divide. Subtract every vote that Hillary Clinton received in Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco Counties and Trump still loses by more than 700,000 votes statewide.

Ok, so maybe Newsom is looking at congressional or legislative races.

Let’s skip past that latter category: Trump won only 14 out of 80 State Assembly districts in 2016 (Mitt Romney carried 22 back in 2012); however, in the ones in which Trump did win, the margin of victory was an average 13 points. That doesn’t suggest much room for Democratic improvement.

As for California’s congressional races, the Cook Political Report presently rates only two of the Golden State’s 53 House seats as “toss-up” races; only two others are “lean” contests (i.e., competitive, with one party holding an edge). High stakes it’s not.

The answer, I think, if you want affix a political motive to Newsom’s mail-in ballots strategy: a surge in votes could swing a needed ballot measure his way.

That measure in question is the so-called split-roll initiative that would rewrite California’s fabled Proposition 13, which for over 40 years has restricted annual tax increases on residential and commercial properties in the Golden State. If approved by voters, the revisionist split-roll—last week, it qualified for the November ballot—would keep the limit for tax increases on residential properties but allow new assessments on commercial properties valued at more than $3 million.

Why would Newsom be concerned about the fate of a ballot measure tailored to a left-of-center electorate? (A little of the proponents’ rhetoric: “Most of us want similar things: good schools for our children, a healthy family, and safe neighborhoods. But for more than four decades, big corporations have not been paying their fair share, leaving California’s school funding falling behind.”)

It might be because the governor doesn’t want the split-roll measure to suffer the same fate as the last California ballot measure advertised as addressing the inadequacies of California’s schools. That would be March’s Proposition 13 (a numerical coincidence and with no connection to the 1978 initiative of the same designation), a $15 billion bond for K–12 school and college facilities.

That bond ran on the same ballot headlined by California’s presidential primary (President Trump was also on the ballot but didn’t bother campaigning out west). It also ran relatively unopposed in the state’s court of public opinion—its backers waging an aggressive media campaign showcasing educators, first-responders (because the bond would pay for safer school structures), and the governor himself, plus endorsements from Vermont senator Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, at the time both active presidential candidates.

As for Prop 13’s opposition, it was pretty much limited to a taxpayers’ association and three major newspapers—the Orange County Register, the San Diego Union-Tribune, the San Jose Mercury News—who editorialized against the measure. (Part of the U-T’s rationale: “With more bond money available, school board members who already face constant pressure to boost employee pay will keep eyeing borrowed money for day-to-day bills.”)

Yet, despite this lopsided ballot fight, Prop 13 received only 47% of the statewide tally—a six-point loss that translates to a deficit of more than 552,000 votes—marking the first time since 1994 (the ill-fated Proposition 1C, a $900 million college construction bond) that a California school bond failed to pass.

Why the bond measure came up short: while more than 5.78 million Californians took part in the Democratic primary, only 4.3 million voted for Prop 13, despite its courtship of the Democratic-friendly portion of the electorate. With more than 9.3 million registered Democrats in the Golden State, common sense suggests that the more Democrats who receive a ballot, the better the chances of another Democratic-friendly measure passing.

And why would California’s governor be so interested in seeing the split-roll measure passing?

That’s easy: money  . . . lots of it for California’s state budget.

Backers of the measure claim it will generate up to $12 billion in new revenue for the state’s coffers (one of many assertions disputed by the California Chamber of Commerce). As Newsom claims that California faces a $54.3 billion budget deficit this year and next (a figure reached by engaging in some complicated math that may or may not prove valid), he likely wouldn’t object to the positive cash flow should the split-roll measure prevail.

The late comedian George Carlin once observed: “Scratch any cynic and you will find a disappointed idealist.” In a Sacramento now defined by revenue shortfalls and budget trimming, idealism becomes another COVID-related casualty—idealism entails dreaming, which invariably entails money, which no longer is there.

Yes, it’s cynical to suggest that a public display of protecting the democratic process is lined with a concern for partisan (and financial) gain.

Then again, pandemics have a funny way of changing things.