Proposition 13 (i.e., People’s Initiative to Limit Property Taxation) is an amendment to the California Constitution, and was passed by voters in California on June 6, 1978 by close to two-thirds of the voting public. Proposition 13 was designed to decrease property taxes on homes, businesses, and farms by 57% – preventing property tax rates from exceeding 1% of a property’s market value. Property tax reassessment would no longer be able to increase by more than 2% per year, except when a property was sold to a valid buyer.
Boiling Point for the Middle Class & the Elderly
Before the advent of 1978’s Proposition 13, property taxes were notorious in terms of being completely out of control in California, in all 58 counties. Reports and complaints of, for want of a better term, taxation abuse – were mounting. Homeowners, especially elderly residents, were losing their homes due to the simple fact that they were unable to pay their rising property taxes. And yet state and local government officials did absolutely nothing to help.
Stories swept across the state like wildfire describing how senior retirees, military veterans, and elderly widows all living on modest fixed incomes were literally being thrown onto the street for late payments; or simply being unable to pay off increasingly high property tax hikes.
By the late 1970s, property tax burdens were unbearable in the state of California; and just as important – unsustainable for working families, middle class, and even upper middle class homeowners. Obviously, wealthy and ultra wealthy residents could absorb pretty much any tax hike. But that’s merely 1% or 2% of the entire state.
For elderly middle class folks dependent on fixed incomes, the outcome in the 1970s was frequently a forced sale of their beloved family home – typically the only asset of any real value they owned. And that was what Californians saw month after month, year after year – retirees and middle class working families either selling off their home, their most precious asset, or giving it up to the tax man against their will.
There was even a story circulating around of an elderly woman having a heart attack due to stress while visiting the Los Angeles Tax Assessor’s office, when she couldn’t convince the authorities to take her seriously and lower her tax bill…
Another good example of the state’s inflexible, intractable position on property taxes is a story from the 1920’s concerning a retired couple, as reported in the Newhall Signal newspaper in Newhall, CA. Because this elderly married couple lived in a small home, close to an upscale brand new apartment building, the County Tax Assessor decided to reassess the couple’s tiny house at the highest possible tax rate – as if the land their little home was on would soon boast a massive high-end hotel! Their small home was taxed at $1,800 per year, regardless of the fact that the retired couple’s total fixed income was $1,900 per year.
Hence, support for Proposition 13 swept the state and filled local newspapers with headlines and reports on this urgent statewide phenomena. Californians began thinking seriously about what it actually might be like to not be financially crippled every year by mounting property taxes.
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayer’s Association Viewpoint
The Howard Jarvis Taxpayer’s Association recently wrote: “The San Francisco Assessor was taking bribes to keep business taxes down below the market value. He went to jail. To make sure the valuations were correct and equal in San Francisco, the new assessor used computers. When a property sold in a neighborhood, all the surrounding properties found new tax bills reflecting a new market value, resulting in great increases in taxes for everyone. Property taxes went up so quickly in San Francisco that bumper stickers soon appeared pleading: ‘Bring back the crooked assessor!’
The private sector of the economy fared beautifully in the aftermath of Proposition 13, but some people questioned whether this private sector success might not have come at the expense of the public sector. Opponents of the tax cuts voiced concerns that the tax reductions might have gone too far requiring excessive program cuts. Vital services, they said, would suffer, schools would have to close, and fire and police protection would no longer be adequate. Yet in spite of the precipitous fall of the state’s average tax rate, state and local revenues did not fall proportionately. The total general revenue for local governments fell only 1% in the year following Proposition 13. By FY 1980 revenue had risen more than 10 % the FY 1978 level. The tax base expanded by more than enough to offset the reduction in tax rates.”
Tax Hikes No More
Basically, Proposition 13 managed to lower property taxes by assessing properties at their 1976 value, while capping annual increases at 2% – not allowing property reassessment of any new base year value – with the exception of the home being sold to a new owner… or on the completion of any new construction on the house.
As of 1978, to everyone’s relief and delight, all residential and commercial real estate owned by an individual, a family, or a corporation was impacted by new Proposition 13 property tax relief measures such as transferring property taxes in California, namely a parent to child property tax transfer or parent-child exclusion for all types of property owners – and protected property tax transfers and the right to transfer parents property taxes when inheriting property and inheriting property taxes.
Beneficiaries could keep parents property taxes basically forever, or as long as they resided in their inherited residence as a primary home. This was what everyone had been waiting for, and was desperately hoping for. With added amendments later on, such as the wildly popular Proposition 58 in 1986, with all sorts of California beneficiaries getting trust loans to buyout property from siblings, while locking in a low Proposition 13 based property tax base.
Another lesser known component to this tax measure, that many families did not even take note of, was an important new step that required a two-thirds majority in both CA Legislative houses to implement any further increases of any state tax rates or revenue charged, which included highly sensitive income tax rates.
A two-thirds majority vote was also imposed on local elections affecting local governments who otherwise, perhaps on a Friday evening blitz when no one was looking, would happily increase some sort of special interest tax, before the other party could stop them. A two-thirds majority vote would prevent that from happening going forward. So Proposition 13 wasn’t just about homeowners getting the right to transfer parents property taxes.
For the first time in the state of California, taxation was capped at a strict 2% rate. For the first time property tax relief (in practice as opposed to lip service), was accessible for middle class, upper middle class and working families – with its’ foundation built on a “base year value” for property tax reassessment, with enforced limits to state property tax rates and limits to increases through arbitrary property reassessment.
California Base Year Values
CA Proposition 13 locked in three critical restraints for property tax reassessment: (a) All real estate now had non-negotiable iron-clad base year values; (b) restricted rates limited property reassessment to a 2% yearly increase; and (c) a property tax limit of 1% of the assessed value was imposed along with the right to transfer parents property taxes and the parent-child exclusion.
Once Proposition 13 passed, property assessments for 1978-1979 were required to be “rolled back” to 1975-1976 property values, establishing the first base year values in California. Properties that have not sold or undergone new construction since February 1975 are viewed as having a 1975 base year value.
Reliable Property Tax Expectations
Because of Proposition 13, for the first time, certainty in taxation lay in the hands of the taxpayer instead of the tax collector. Proposition 13 set up an acquisition value system that treats all homeowners alike in that they pay 1% of the market value established at the time of purchase; limiting increases to 2% per year – creating a an even playing field for all property owners.