‘13’ could be unlucky number for school construction measure on California ballot 

March 2, 2020

A new central kitchen for Oakland Unified under construction in 2018 has been completed, but the board is seeking a new $735 million bond measure in November 2020 for more facilities upgrades.

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For the first time in memory, the number assigned to an initiative in California could be the decisive factor in whether voters will give it the green light on Tuesday’s ballot.

Proposition 13, the $15 billion bond measure to fund construction and renovation for schools and community colleges, has the unfortunate fate of being assigned the same number as California’s best-known initiative, the tax-cutting measure approved overwhelmingly by voters in 1978.

That initiative has shaped California’s politics and policies, not to speak of its finances, arguably more than any other initiative in its history.

How did the school bond measure end up with the same number as the far better-known Prop. 13, one that still triggers instinctive responses — and passions — for or against it, among millions of Californians?

As EdSource’s John Fensterwald explained several months ago, under state law, the numbering process for propositions begins every 10 years. The last time a new rotation of numbers began was in 2018 when there were 12 propositions on the ballot. The numbering simply continues on the next statewide ballot, and according to state law, bond measures have to be listed first. That’s why the school bond measure on the ballot is labeled Prop. 13, the next number after Prop. 12 on the 2018 ballot.

It is not known exactly how the Prop. 13 label will affect the outcome. Its main impact could be to sow confusion among voters. The problem with confusion is that it generally pushes people to vote no rather than yes on an initiative.

What could undermine support for the bond measure is that despite decades of criticism from state leaders and educators of the fiscal impact of the original Prop. 13, including on school funding, the 1978 initiative still enjoys surprisingly strong support among many Californians.

Voters who support the original Prop. 13 may incorrectly see the school bond measure on the ballot as an attempt to reform the 1978 measure — and will vote against it. Some voters may be confused as to whether the bond measure proposition is the same as the “split roll” initiative destined for the November ballot, also intended to raise billions of dollars for schools. That could also cause them to vote against the measure.

If approved by voters, the “split roll” initiative would indeed usher in a major reform of Prop. 13 — the original one — by substantially raising taxes on commercial properties. But that is not what is on the Tuesday’s ballot.

On the other hand, some supporters of the 1978 Prop. 13 may simply vote for the construction bond measure, as an instinctive vote of endorsement for the original Prop. 13.

Some voters, especially younger ones who were born after 1978, and who might have been inclined to vote for the bond measure, might be worried about the astronomically high property taxes levied on any house they might buy today in many parts of California — if they could afford to buy one. Under the original Prop. 13, residential property taxes are based on what a buyer pays for a house — and more or less fixed at that rate. Today’s younger buyers, or potential ones, might view the bond measure as somehow leading to even higher property taxes, putting home ownership even further out of reach for many of them.

What is worrisome for backers of the measure is that some polls show uncomfortably close margins of support for the measure, so that the confusion factor could make the difference in whether the measure gets more than the required 50 percent of the vote.

The most recent poll from the Public Policy Institute of California, a phone survey conducted just three weeks ago, showed that only 51 percent of likely voters said they would vote for the initiative, while 42 percent said they would oppose it.

That is an uncomfortably close margin for an initiative that should be a slam dunk for voters, especially because there has been virtually no campaign against it. School bond measures almost always get approved. Only once in the past 25 years, according to the Los Angeles Times, has a statewide K-12 education bond been defeated.

The only declared opponents of the measure, at least in the voter’s handbook, are the Howard Jarvis  Taxpayers Association, named after Howard Jarvis, the driving force behind the original Prop. 13 in 1978, and state Sen. Brian Jones, R-San Diego.

The PACE/USC Rossier poll, conducted in early January via Internet, shows stronger support for this year’s Prop. 13, by asking a more detailed question than the PPIC poll to gauge how strongly voters view the measure. The representative online poll of 2,000 registered voters showed 39 percent of voters strongly supporting it, while 35 percent said they “somewhat” supported it.

But the fact that only 39 percent of voters strongly support the measure is hardly cause for comfort.

Last fall, Gov. Gavin Newsom predicted that voters will vote in favor of the measure.

“Voters will approve this bond because voters historically approve school bonds. It transcends urban, rural, suburban, it transcends politics,” Newsom said in October. “You can’t look in the eyes of these kids and make an argument that the facilities that so many of them are being educated in are appropriate.”

The key is whether voters read the voter’s handbook carefully before they cast their ballots tomorrow, and realize that this Prop. 13 is unrelated to its far more famous namesake. In most cases, that is unlikely to happen, given that ballot descriptions of bond measures don’t make for the easiest reading.

This one certainly doesn’t. There are 10 pages in the voter’s handbook describing the bond measure, along with arguments for and against it. And that’s on top of 11 dense pages with the language of the measure itself.

It thus seems inevitable that Prop. 13 — the 1978 edition — will cast a shadow over tomorrow’s vote, as it has over so much in California for nearly half a century.

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