Vote Count

Vote-by-mail for the Nov. 3 election begins on Oct. 5. To read the text of all 12 measures, visit the California Secretary of State website at sos.ca.gov/elections/ballot-measures.

After a bit of last-minute legislative maneuvering, the list of propositions that California voters will be asked to weigh in on has been finalized.

They address matters as vital and/or esoteric as rent control, property tax law, dialysis clinic staffing requirements, stem cell research funding and the preservation or final dispatch of cash bail in California. Lawmakers added four measures: two to expand voting rights, one that ends a 22-year-old ban on affirmative action, and one that is a tortuously complicated property tax measure that somehow ropes in Realtors, wildland firefighters and “The Dude” from the Big Lebowski. Here’s a partial November ballot preview.

Prop. 15: Split roll

Who put it there: Citizens. Campaign largely funded by the California Teachers Association, SEIU California and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Type: Constitutional amendment

What it would do: Tax some commercial property based on its market value, rather than the price at which it was purchased. This would raise property taxes on many large businesses across the state, increasing funding for schools and local government.

In 1978, California voters passed Proposition 13, placing a cap on property taxes, kicking off a nationwide anti-tax revolt and placing city and county budgets in a generation-spanning straitjacket.

By tying a landlord’s property tax payments to the original purchase price, Prop. 13 has been the gift that keeps on giving to property owners, particularly those lucky enough to have bought cheap real estate decades ago. There’s been bipartisan reluctance among lawmakers to touch it ever since, lest they incur the wrath of irate homeowners.

This initiative attempts to divide and conquer that political problem by repealing the property tax protections only for commercial landlords with more than $3 million in holdings. If this measure passes, those landowners would have to make tax payments based on the current value of their properties – a tax hike for most – resulting in an estimated $6.5 to $11.5 billion more for cities, counties and school districts.

Prop. 16: Ending the ban on affirmative action

Who put it there: The Legislature, via a bill by San Diego Democrat Assemblymember Shirley Weber

Type: Constitutional amendment

What it would do: Allow schools and public agencies to take race and other immutable characteristics into account when making admission, hiring or contracting decisions.

In 1996 California voters passed Proposition 209, a constitutional amendment banning affirmative action at state institutions. The result was an immediate drop in Black and Latino enrollment at the state’s elite public universities. Some civil rights organizations have been trying to repeal Prop. 209 ever since.

Each of those attempts has been stymied by a coalition of Republicans, moderate Democrats and some progressive legislators who represent districts with large Asian American voting populations. This year, as in previous years, some of the most vocal and persistent opponents of the effort to reintroduce affirmative action have been Chinese-American political activists.

They argue that boosting enrollment of students from underrepresented racial groups would come at the expense of “overrepresented” Asian American students.

Prop. 17: Restoring the right to vote to people on parole

Who put it there: The Legislature, via a bill by Sacramento Democrat Assemblymember Kevin McCarty.

Type: Constitutional amendment

What it would do: Allow Californians who are currently on parole to vote.

In 1974, California voters passed a ballot measure giving people who have committed felonies the right to vote once they complete their sentences and are no longer on parole.

Thanks to that law, there are some 40,000 Californians who are not in prison but unable to legally cast a ballot. But as with any criminal justice debate, this is also one about race. According to an estimate from 2016, two-thirds of people on parole in the state are Latino or Black.

Prop. 19: Property tax breaks and closing the “Lebowski loophole”

Who put it there: The Legislature, via a bill by San Mateo Democrat Assemblymember Kevin Mullin, but sponsored by the California Realtors.

Type: Constitutional amendment

What it would do: Allow homeowners who are over 55, disabled or victims of natural disaster to take a portion of their property tax base with them when they sell their home and buy a new one. It would also limit the ability of new homeowners who inherit properties to keep their parents’ or grandparents’ low property tax payments. Most of the additional money raised would go into a state fire response fund.

We’ve seen this one before – half of it, anyway. In 2018, the California Association of Realtors put a measure on the ballot allowing older or disabled homeowners to keep a portion of their Prop. 13 tax break. The Realtors argued that the current property tax rules disincentivize longtime homeowners from moving, “trapping” empty-nesters in houses that are too big for them and locking out new families. But because the measure would cost schools, counties and cities, it was opposed by organized labor and local government groups – and failed by 20 points.

The Realtors tried again this year, but with an added fiscal sweetener. Under this proposal, anyone who inherits a home from their parents or grandparents would only be allowed to keep the low property taxes if they use the home as their primary residence and only on the first $1 million between the home’s original purchase price and its market value. Inspiration for that caveat may have come from the Los Angeles Times, which tracked down a number of California scions, including “The Big Lebowski” star Jeff Bridges, who are still paying 1970-era property tax levels on their rental properties.

And then there was a last-minute wrinkle. In the final weeks of June, the Realtors sprang a deal: designating that most of the funding generated by the measure would go to fighting wildfires. That won the support of the influential California Professional Firefighters union. It also means the measure will be funding a public need that might be on many voters’ minds come November.

That bargain was struck after the Realtors had submitted their signatures, so with the help of Assemblyman Mullin, they passed it through the Legislature, pulling their original proposal just before the deadline.

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