Proposition 15 in California: What to Know

Credit...Associated Press

Good morning.

Today, we’re digging a little deeper, one last time, into Proposition 15, the complicated, seemingly mundane, but ultimately very consequential measure on Californians’ ballots.

It would change the way commercial properties are taxed, partially rolling back Proposition 13, the landmark 1978 measure that capped property tax increases and has been a defining force in California fiscal policy ever since.

[Refresh your memory on the highest-profile ballot initiatives this year.]

My colleague Conor Dougherty wrote more about the long-running fight — its roots and why it’s important. I asked him about what could be ahead.

Here’s what he said:

You explain this in the story, but can you set up the stakes for Proposition 15? Why is it such a big deal for Californians?

Well for starters, if it passes it would be one of the biggest tax increases in state history, so that alone is a big deal. But there is also a lot of symbolism here.

Proposition 13 has defined California’s land and politics since 1978 and has been considered untouchable ever since. Even a tiny step toward rolling it back would be a big deal, and this is a big step. So if it’s successful it will change our perception of what’s considered politically possible.

Proposition 13 is uniquely a product of California. But are there ways in which the fight over it has influenced national debate or federal policy? And how does Proposition 15 fit into the national economic picture?

Proposition 13 is widely credited with kick-starting a nationwide tax revolt, and there are other places, like Florida, that have laws that limit how fast property values can be reassessed. So it’s not completely unique.

What I think is significant here is Proposition 15 seems to suggest a new attitude toward taxes and a desire to tax large corporations. If you believe the adage that California is a look at the nation’s future — and that certainly applied to Prop. 13 in 1978 — then, like I said, there’s some symbolism here of the original tax revolt potentially getting reversed.

Say Proposition 15 passes. How much would proponents see that as an opportunity to ask voters to change the residential property side of things? Or is there a sense that they’d just take the win?

I don’t think anyone will go near residential homes for a while, if ever. Proposition 13 is still incredibly popular.

[Read the full story here.]

Now, say Proposition 15 fails. What would happen then? Would the “Yes” campaign regroup and come back in two years or four years? Are there other ways policymakers might try to generate that money? (Notably, the other Proposition 13 that was on the ballot earlier this year failed, so is a big bond measure off the table for a while?)

Over the past year Californians seem to have become less amenable to tax increases. Will that affect Prop. 15? Hard to say.

Coming back at it will be hugely expensive so I suspect it will be a while before that gets tried again, but it depends on how close the Proposition 15 race is.

What will you be watching most closely as the results come in? What questions are you hoping to answer?

I’ll be watching the margins. If it barely passes or barely fails, I expect that will mean one side or the other will continue to take a whack at it in future elections — remember, even if it passes, the “No” side can try to roll back the rollback in a more favorable election. But if it’s a definitive failure or definitive victory, that gives either outcome a better chance at sticking.

[See The Times’s full voter guide for Californians, with information about how, when and where to cast your ballot. | Leer en español.]

Read more about the election:

If you missed it, a report found that more work must be done to get first-time or harder-to-reach voters to the polls. [The New York Times]

Credit...Mark Rightmire/The Orange County Register, via Associated Press
Credit...Erin Lubin for The New York Times

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