The slim-margin success of California property tax hike Proposition 19 has been due to an odd combination of elements. Not held up by a great deal of media support – yet enjoying all the benefits of a massive promotional budget, with first-rate brand awareness and PR; etc. – allocated by several established high-profile organizations lending a great deal of credibility to the Proposition 19 campaign.
Proposition 19 concentrated on the (supposed) well-being of seniors; on the enhanced profitability of the California realtor community, and on the escalated financial health of the state educational system. Although all the Proposition 19 public relations language supported all those focus points… how sincere it was remains to be seen. Oddly enough, press and media support never mirrored the robust financial support that Proposition 19 enjoyed.
Only a handful of organizations such as ACLU of Southern California, the Family Business Association of California, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, and League of Women Voters of California supported the effort to defeat Prop 19 – coming up with a mere $58,000 to support and protect Proposition 58, Proposition 13, and the right to continue transferring property taxes…
Meanwhile, a tremendous parade of well heeled organizations backed the Proposition 19 tax initiative, and fought hard to get it passed, donating some $46,458,168.88… The astounding amount of capital raised to get the proposition passed was led by the California Association of Realtors, donating a stunning $35,710,000; National Association of Realtors, with $4,823,500; California Professional Firefighters Ballot Issues Committee with $100,454; and the Operating Engineers Local Union No. 3 Issues Advocacy/Ballot Initiative PAC with $10,000.
Other supporters were California Senior Advocates League, California Statewide Law Enforcement Association, Californians for Disability Rights, Congress of California Seniors, California State Federation of Labor, CalAsian Chamber of Commerce, California Black Chamber of Commerce, California Business Roundtable, California Forestry Association, California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and the California NAACP State Conference – just to name a few. The full list of supporters is extraordinary.
The California Legislature boldly claims that local governments and schools could “gain tens of millions of dollars of additional property tax revenue every year…” These extra revenue gains, they anticipate, “might grow over time… to a few hundred million dollars per year.” “Might” and “could”… But no one knows for sure. Many feel these numbers are exaggerated.
Did those politicos running California, along with the real estate organizations who had enough in their war-chest to throw $40,000,000 at this tax bill – ever consider that a large number of family farms and other companies will go under, as they have said they are in danger of doing due to overly high taxation, Covid, and poor sales… and will stop paying taxes altogether at that point.
Did they ever consider that if you topple over or mess with California’s right to transfer property taxes when inheriting property taxes from parents… or limit beneficiaries’ ability to keep parents property taxes for as long as needed; in fact to tamper at all with the legal right to take advantage of property tax transfer benefits, or the transfer of parents property taxes upon inheriting property taxes in general… or limiting a families’ ability to get a trust loan to buyout a co-beneficiary’s inherited property, to take advantage of Proposition 58 to avoid property tax reassessment… Or utilize property tax transfer, namely the right to transfer property taxes, parent to child transfers and parent to child exclusion, is always dangerous to tamper with or to try to “fix” a system that has been in place for decades and that is working well, requiring no actual need of fixing.
Many who are not in danger of going under have claimed they are fed up with the high cost of doing business in California — and tax hikes of any kind would push them over the line, forcing them to leave California for more corporate-friendly states, with lower taxes in general. They may not have the right to transfer property taxes in a new state, however their income tax and living expenses in general are likely to be far less expensive than in California.
Did any of the short-sighted folks pushing property tax increases like Prop 19, limiting and even removing the right to transfer property taxes as well as high income tax, ever stop to consider that in the final analysis California loses out on a lot more tax revenue going down this avenue. In fact, if you examine the ten highest income tax states (or legal jurisdictions) you see right away how high taxation already is in California, even before property tax increases…
- California 13.3%
- Hawaii 11%
- New Jersey 10.75%
- Oregon 9.9%
- Minnesota 9.85%
- District of Columbia 8.95%
- New York 8.82%
- Vermont 8.75%
- Iowa 8.53%
- Wisconsin 7.65%
Not only that, if you factor in the thousands of good white collar and blue collar jobs that exit with those companies when they leave the state, take note of the fact that those jobs are gone forever! Moreover, all those workers put an additional strain on the system, collecting unemployment checks plus no longer themselves paying out taxes on the level they were before… Many of them in fact leaving the state to find work in nearby states with lower taxes and lower living expenses. Again, less tax revenue going to the California. Did this not occur to anyone in the State Government, smart folks with PHDs and MBAs and law degrees…? You would think it would have.
Opposition in the Press
Yet with all that financial support – press and media support was stunningly low, in terms of support for Proposition 19. Editorial Boards opposing this property tax ballot looked something like this:
• The Orange County Register Editorial Board: “But Prop. 19 is best understood for what it is: an attempt by real estate interests to accomplish what they couldn’t accomplish two years ago by pandering to the state’s firefighters union. This is a special-interest measure that seeks to raise hundreds of millions of new tax revenues to appease yet another special interest. Prop. 19 has one good feature — portability. Counties ought to enable it forthwith, as a few already have done. But Prop. 19 is a cash grab, not tax reform; it’s not fair to property heirs, and it buys off a union so it has a better chance of passing. Vote it down.”
• Mercury News & East Bay Times Editorial Boards: “Prop. 19 merely plugs one hole in the state’s porous property tax laws while creating another. It’s time for holistic reform that simplifies the system and makes it more equitable. This isn’t it. The longer a person had owned their current home, and already benefited from inordinately low tax bills due to Prop. 13, the greater the tax break on the new property. And those who downsize would often be competing with first-time buyers for more-affordable smaller homes. The real reform would be to abolish the tax-transfer program, not expand it. Vote no on Prop. 19.”
• The Bakersfield Californian Editorial Board: “Proposition 19 is another do-over on the ballot. Two years ago, the real estate industry spent $13 million on a similar initiative campaign to expand the program statewide and enhance the benefit for eligible homeowners. Sixty percent of voters rejected the initiative. They should do the same this year.”
• Los Angeles Times Editorial Board: “But Proposition 19 would just expand the inequities in California’s property tax system. It would grossly benefit those who were lucky enough to buy a home years ago and hold onto it as values skyrocketed. It would give them a huge tax break and greater buying power in an already expensive real estate market. It would skew tax breaks further away from people who don’t own a home or who may be struggling to buy one.”
• San Francisco Chronicle Editorial Board: “But it’s still a flawed package, designed to rev up home sales that benefit real estate agents who could reap more in commissions. It favors one narrow segment of the tax-paying public but does nothing for the rest of the state’s home buyers. The measure shows the convoluted extremes that California’s tangled property tax system produces.”
• The Desert Sun Editorial Board: “What seems clear is that the main backers of this measure — Realtors and the firefighters union — stand to gain greatly in the forms of expected increased home sales and related sales commissions and the measure’s dedication of some of the state’s ultimate new tax proceeds specifically to firefighting efforts. Firefighting must be a priority of state and local governments. Budgeting for anything so vital by this type of special interest ballot measure is the worst way to do so. Lawmakers should be making such key spending decisions in their regular budget work.”
• The Press Democrat Editorial Board: “Proposition 19 would allow people to buy more expensive homes anywhere in the state, while capping their property taxes. Moreover, they could repeat the maneuver three times. That might provide lots of business for real estate agents, but it would undercut school districts and local governments, the beneficiaries of property taxes. […] California’s tax system is overdue for an overhaul, but these measures make piecemeal changes that are as likely to create new problems as solve old ones. The Press Democrat recommends no votes on Propositions 15 and 19.”
Editorial Boards supporting this property tax ballot was slim, and looked something like this:
• San Mateo Daily Journal Editorial Board: “This would enable people in high cost areas to move more easily, opening up room for new residents to the area.”
• The San Diego Union-Tribune Editorial Board: “While critics see this as a gift to the wealthy elderly, the great majority of older homeowners are middle-income, not rich. Allowing them (as well as disabled homeowners and wildfire or disaster victims) to downsize without suffering a huge property tax hit is a humane policy that helps people retire with much less financial stress. It would also promote fluidity in home sales, increasing the availability of larger homes for families with children.”
The logic surfaced in these two supportive editorials, frankly, make no sense at all; and do not line up with the data points in the actual tax measure.
As Californians gear up to repeal this tax measure, it is important to remember that Proposition 19 changed the rules for tax assessment transfers. Homeowners used to be able to transfer their tax assessments to a different home of the same or lesser market value, which allowed them to move without paying higher taxes. Homeowners who were eligible for tax assessment transfers were over 55 years old, frequently with moderate disabilities, often becoming more severe as they grow older. Revised property tax relief now looks something like this:
The ballot measure allowed eligible homeowners to transfer their tax assessments anywhere within the state and allow tax assessments to be transferred to a more expensive home with an upward adjustment. The number of times that a tax assessment can be transferred increased from one to three for persons over 55 years old or with severe disabilities (disaster and contamination victims would continue to be allowed one transfer).
Parents and grandparents used to be able to transfer primary residential properties to their children or grandchildren without the property’s tax assessment resetting to market value. Other types of properties, such as vacation homes and business properties, could also be transferred from parent to child or grandparent to grandchild with the first $1 million exempt from re-assessment when transferred.
Now… the right to transfer property taxes is limited in certain circumstances. The Parent-to-Child Exclusion and grandparent-to-grandchild exemption is eliminated in cases where the beneficiary does not use the inherited property as a primary residence, such as using inherited property as a rental property or vacation home. When the inherited property is used as a primary residence but is sold for $1 million more than the property’s taxable value, an upward adjustment in assessed value would occur. The ballot measure also applied these rules to certain farms. Beginning Feb. 16, 2023, the first $1 million is adjusted each year at a rate equal to the change in the California House Price Index.
Beyond the sizzle that the California Legislature and the Realtors sold us on – it’s important, in fact crucial, that Californians remember the steak… and not continue to be fooled by the sizzle in he future; looking towards the collective fed up mood in the state, regarding this tax measure… as support slowly gathers across the state to repeal Proposition 19.