Proposition 15 seeks to reclaim $10-12 billion in annual funding for K-12 public schools, community colleges, parks, transit, unhoused services, libraries and health clinics by closing one of the most sinister tax loopholes in history. This loophole, created by an amendment to the California State Constitution, caps property taxes at 1% of original purchase price and freezes valuation, allowing companies like Disney and Chevron to rob Californians of billions of dollars each year. If Prop 15 passes it would be the biggest change to California tax structure in a generation—and provide the nation with a model for escaping the death grip of neoliberalism that has been suffocating our communities for more than half a century.
To fully understand just how critical Prop 15 is, we have to go back to 1978’s conservative flagship ballot measure Proposition 13. Billed as a “Keep Grandma in her home” initiative, Prop 13 features neoliberalism’s patented blend of trickle-down economics and austerity politics, all wrapped up in one deceptively wholesome package. It is, as the kids say, the blueprint. While loudly promising relief for California’s residential property owners, many voters didn’t realize that Prop 13 was also giving a huge tax break to big corporations and wealthy investors, whose tax revenues provided the bulk of funding for California public services. To make matters worse, Prop 13 essentially locked this tax structure into place by requiring all future tax hikes to pass state legislature by a 2/3 supermajority.
When Prop 13 passed, California public schools lost a third of their funding overnight and conservative policymakers around the country had found a whole new way to cut services without facing public outcry. Within five years of Prop 13’s passage, nearly half the states had strapped a similar straitjacket on politicians’ tax‐raising capabilities—almost all of which remain the law of the land today. Regressive taxes are toxic in all cases, but in California the effects have been particularly egregious. As home to both the greatest number of billionaires and the highest supplemental poverty rate, California’s working class is being ruthlessly cheated out of the wealth they labor to produce. Before Prop 13, California schools were among the best in the nation; today, our schools trail in both rankings and per-pupil spending. And when it comes to class sizes, school nurses, and school librarians, California ranks near the very bottom.
Prop 15 would provide an antidote through the implementation of a split-roll tax, protecting small business, agriculture and homeowners while unfreezing the tax rates on commercial properties valued at more than $3 million. You see, while residential real estate is reassessed each time it changes owners, corporations have been able to exploit Prop 13 to ensure their properties are never reassessed, effectively stealing billions each year. Take Shell Oil Company, one of the world’s largest corporations with $345 billion in revenues: Shell’s distribution complex in Carson, CA hasn’t been reassessed since 1975. Under Prop 15, Shell would pay an additional $4-8 million each year, funds that would benefit schools, parks, and local services. And it’s not just Shell--Hilton, Disneyland, Chevron, Apple, The Gap and many more have avoided paying their fair share for decades.
As the grim finger of covid continues to drag across the globe, we need Prop 15 more than ever. California’s budget gap has grown to $54.3 billion, the largest deficit since the Great Recession; absent intervention, such a shortfall spells rapid and extensive cuts to public programs. And that’s just in California—similar struggles are taking place all over the nation. Prop 15’s progressive “Tax the Rich” structure offers us a way out of austerity. It provides a concrete model for economic justice while exposing the crisis of capitalism and building a framework for class-consciousness and solidarity; the implications of this should not be underestimated. Just as California’s Prop 13 carved a path for neoliberalism, Prop 15 has the potential to do the same for leftists and labor organizers everywhere.