It’s open season these days on ballot initiatives, propositions placed on California’s ballots every two years after hundreds of thousands of voters sign petitions to put them there.
The as-yet-unnamed and -unnumbered initiative known as the “split roll” is not exempt.
Thanks to a 2014 law, legislators and others state officials who don’t like ordinary citizens to make this state’s biggest policy decisions now can maneuver to get already-qualified initiatives taken off the ballot. If they work out a deal with the initiative sponsors, the measure will go away.
For the split roll measure, whose sponsors including the League of Women Voters gathered more than half a million signatures, that means it would not be Californians at large deciding what is arguably the most important tax issue now before the state, but rather a bunch of insiders.
British Prime Minister Theresa May, opposing a second national referendum on whether the United Kingdom should pull out of the European Union, said for much of the winter that holding a second vote “would undermine public faith in democracy.”
That’s just what a back-room deal taking the split roll initiative off the November 2020 ballot would do.
No doubt, split roll would upset quite a few applecarts. But that is what the early 20th Century Republican Progressive Gov. Hiram Johnson had in mind when he engineered the initiative process to let voters make key decisions.
Make no mistake, the split roll verdict is a key decision. It would make the first significant change in Proposition 13 since that landmark property tax-cutting measure passed by almost a 2-1 vote in 1978. For almost 41 years since then, commercial property has been taxed at the same rate as residential, owners of both types paying 1 percent of the latest purchase price, plus a 2 percent yearly increase. Property in the same hands since 1975 gets taxed at 1 percent of its assessment that year, plus the same 2 percent annual increment.
Split roll would change this formula for commercial property, while leaving homes alone. Business property would immediately be taxed based on current valuations, bringing in as much as $11 billion in new government revenue every year. Business interests like chambers of commerce around the state will fight this change.
But the question may never actually get to a yes-or-no vote. Last summer, for example, the Legislature passed new privacy rules entitling all Californians to know what information Internet giants like Google and Yahoo and Facebook and eBay and Amazon have about them. They will soon be able to prohibit companies from selling that information and force companies to delete it after they learn what’s been gathered.
That was progress, but a far cry the ballot initiative those new rules replaced. The original would have forced companies to get consumer permission before gathering, maintaining or selling information on what Internet searches people make, what they buy and what products they look at but don’t buy – and much more.
Initiative sponsors scrapped those things when they compromised with Big Internet, sparing the sponsors from having to raise many millions of campaign dollars while still risking a loss and a return to Square 1.
This was the kind of compromise intended when the 2014 law passed. But it deprived voters of a voice via a classic backroom deal made shortly before the deadline for ballot measures to be assigned proposition numbers.
Now Gov. Gavin Newsom has said he’d like to broker a deal staving off an expensive and emotional campaign over Proposition 13. He wants to simply California’s tax code in the process and make it more fair, at the same time making the state budget less dependent on income taxes generated by stock and bond investments.
No one is now claiming a far-reaching tax deal is likely or even possible. But if it happens and it takes the split roll off the ballot, voters will again lose the chance to make an important decision that could affect all Californians for many years to come.
And that would be a major detriment to democracy.