Why didn’t Proposition 13 get more support from voters on Tuesday?
That’s a good question — even if the $15 billion state construction bond manages a remarkable turnaround and squeaks by to win after the remaining votes are counted. Backers of the bond measure are still hopeful it will win, and at least one data analyst says it’s possible.
The California secretary of state reported Tuesday in his latest report that 787,000 votes have yet to be counted. Prop.13 remains behind 46.3 to 53.7 percent, with a gap of 626,000 votes to make up.
What is clear is that supporters of the bond didn’t expect to be in this position. California voters have passed every construction bond for education since 1994, when voters narrowly defeated two small bonds, one for higher education and one for K-12 schools. The latest polls varied on what voters thought of Prop. 13. One from the Public Policy Institute of California put support at 51 percent; another, the PACE/USC Rossier Poll, put support at 64 percent (page 12). The measure needs a simple majority to win.
Supporters had reason for confidence going into Tuesday.
Good timing: Or at least that’s what they assumed when they chose the March primary election where there would be no competing initiatives and the Democratic presidential race would top the ballot, ensuring a big turnout of the voters belonging to the party identified with more government spending.
A well-funded campaign: $10 million behind the “Yes on Prop. 13” campaign compared with the $250,000 in radio ads that the anti-tax group Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association ran.
Abundant support: Organizations representing teachers, parents, school leaders, higher education groups, unions and business groups like the California Business Roundtable all endorsed Prop. 13.
So did Gov. Gavin Newsom. In 2016, former Gov. Jerry Brown refused to endorse the last bond — $9 billion through Prop. 51 — and it won. Newsom’s advisers negotiated the terms of Prop. 13, and he campaigned for it, with a TV ad and school appearances during the last week. His efforts, though, may not be enough.
Then why not?
Observers agree there are multiple, related reasons, not a single overriding one why the bond is in trouble.
No. 1 is actually number 13. There’s no dispute that voters associated this Prop.13 with the grandfather of all tax cuts, the Prop. 13 that voters passed in 1978. That caused confusion, and confused voters tend to say no on spending more money.
Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, who authored Assembly Bill 48, which created the wording of Prop. 13, must agree. He has declined so far to comment about the election results, but on Wednesday, he issued a press release announcing he would introduce legislation to retire the number 13 on future ballot measures. “We need to retire this ballot number to ensure voters are not misled,” he said.
Starting last November, when the bond became Prop. 13, and several times since (here and here), EdSource explained the process of numbering initiatives. It’s straightforward. Every decade, starting the year ending in “8,” the numbering cycle starts again. There were a dozen initiatives on state ballots in 2018; the state construction bond was the only measure appearing for the March primary, so it became Prop. 13.
The ballot summary of the bond made clear — to those who read it — that the principal and the $11 billion in interest on the bond would be repaid through the state’s general fund. But, as evident in comments to EdSource, Twitter and Nextdoor, many voters saw an underhanded effort to undermine the existing Prop. 13, and they were furious. In the new media era, ballot arguments are analog, while anger goes viral. “Do not believe a word of it. It totally is all about our property taxes that will increase and thousands of us will have to move out of Calif and possibly lose our homes,” wrote one reader to EdSource. Which gets to another reason the bond is in trouble:
Tax fatigue. Along with Prop. 13, Tuesday was a bad day for the 120 local school bond measures and 28 parcel taxes. The former need a 55 percent majority to pass, and the latter require two-thirds. Their passage numbers could improve, too, after all of the votes are counted. But it’s evident already that a historically high percentage of bonds and parcel taxes will fail. EdSource will soon publish a detailed analysis.
Robert Lapsley, president of the California Business Roundtable, which does its own polling, said, “From everything we see, there is a huge concern about housing affordability and the cost of living and about paying more taxes. The older electorate and homeowners in particular don’t see accountability; there’s cynicism about where the money goes. That’s why local measures failed.”
Economic uncertainty: The timing of the election also turned out to be unfortunate. Worry over a possible coronavirus pandemic, which triggered a plunge in stock market values, were unsettling, particularly for older voters dependent on savings, said Morgan Polikoff, associate professor of education at USC Rossier School of Education and adviser to the Rossier poll. That could explain why the support for Prop. 13 in the poll dropped, too, he said. “I’ve had the jitters, and financially I’m doing fine.”
And, he added, California is a high-tax state, so supporters had to make the case for the bond. “I didn’t get the sense that they did that,” he said. The campaign seemed “invisible.”
Added complexity: During negotiations with legislators, the Newsom administration insisted on adding conditions that complicated the effort to win support for the bond measure.
- Giving districts that agree to use unionized workers on construction sites priority in line for matching state funding. That cemented the support of unions but could have irritated other voters concerned the school districts would be forced to pay higher construction costs.
- Reducing fees that districts can charge multi-unit housing developers and eliminating fees for large residential complexes near transit lines. Newsom’s goal is to make housing a little more affordable in a state where developers face high fees. But it also cost key support in Los Angeles Unified, whose board members declined to endorse the bond over a potential loss of revenue.
- Enlarging the bond. The administration insisted on adding funding for the University of California and California State University. O’Donnell’s bill funded only K-12 and community colleges. Newsom wanted a comprehensive approach to facilities, but $15 billion, a record amount for a state facilities bond for education, made it a bigger target for criticism.
- Raising districts’ bonding capacity. Districts have a ceiling on the amount of construction bonds they can issue. It’s tied to a percentage of the assessed value of properties in the district. School organizations didn’t ask for a higher limit, but the California Department of Finance, without explaining why, raised it significantly, meaning school boards could seek more extensive and expensive school renovations or new buildings.
This section of the measure provided Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, an opening to spread the word that the language raised property taxes, even though district voters, not the state, would retain the power over how much they wanted to spend. The argument resonated.
“The provision raising the debt ceiling made it harder to argue clearly and emphatically that the bond would not raise property taxes. It complicated things,” said Kevin Gordon, president of Capitol Advisors Group, an education consulting company and a supporter of the bond
“Together, this mixture of issues that were added may have been our undoing,” he said.
If Prop. 13 does lose, Gordon hopes the Legislature returns with a simpler, less expensive, “clean” bill — focused on K-12 and without tangential issues that distracted from the need to help school districts with urgent facility needs.
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