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Antonucci: California Teachers Association ramps up its property tax campaign, but it has a tough road ahead

Mike Antonucci | October 10, 2019

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Mike Antonucci’s Union Report appears weekly at LA School Report

The School and Communities First ballot initiative might be the biggest and most expensive school funding campaign battle in California history. Or, it might peter out as so many other similar attempts have in the past. There is evidence to support either view.

The proposed measure, now seeking a November 2020 election date, would radically alter the provisions of Proposition 13, the state’s landmark property tax limitation initiative approved by voters in 1978. The new initiative would maintain Prop 13 protections for residential homeowners but eliminate them for many commercial properties, creating what is commonly called a split-roll property tax.

Though the election is more than a year away, the California Teachers Association has already begun its work on the campaign and is prepared to fund it with millions of dollars. Over last weekend, CTA placed the initiative on its front burner, devoting the entirety of its annual Political Activist Academy to preparing union representatives for the job to come.

The attendees were chosen from union local affiliates across California. They were informed that after the conference, they would be given materials and opportunities to engage CTA members and the public, and would be expected to continue their work as part of a cadre activists through the 2020 election.

They were trained in messaging for both internal and external audiences and instructed on signature-gathering to place the initiative on the ballot.

The messaging won’t be too complicated, as this two-page campaign fact sheet uses the words “corporate” or “corporation” eight times and adds references to “wealthy,” “concentrated wealth” and “ultra-rich.”

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti addressed the CTA activists at the academy and pledged his support for the initiative.

Despite this accelerated activity, the campaign does face significant hurdles. A Public Policy Institute of California survey released late last month revealed fading support for a split-roll property tax. Forty-seven percent of likely voters favored the idea, with 45 percent opposed. Perhaps more worrisome for the campaign was the fact that independents rejected it by a vote of 54 to 36 percent.

In order to win, the campaign would need large margins in the state’s major cities, but the poll showed only 51 percent support in the Los Angeles region and 55 percent in San Francisco, which was the high-water mark for the entire state.

There may be any number of explanations for this weak showing, but the survey offers a compelling one. Respondents were asked if the state would experience good or bad economic conditions in the next 12 months. They chose bad, 54 to 37 percent. And more chose bad regardless of political party, ideology, region, gender, race, age, education or income.

There is another reason for Californians to be skeptical about the initiative. The state Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates the measure will raise $6.5 billion to $11.5 billion, once administrative costs and reduced income tax revenues are factored in. Public education would receive 40 percent of that money. Assuming those revenues materialize, that would be somewhere between $2.6 billion and $4.6 billion.

California’s education spending has increased by more than $33 billion since 2012. During that time, enrollment fell, and is expected to continue to fall dramatically.

So while some might consider the split-roll tax a money grab, it really doesn’t provide enough to make a contentious and expensive campaign worthwhile. It is much more reasonable to assume that the goal is to undo Proposition 13 entirely. Since there is no chance that could happen using one wrecking ball, the Schools and Communities First initiative seeks to be the first to chip at the Prop 13 structure and pave the way for future demolition.

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