Few ballot-box measures in California history have been more popular with the electorate or lamented by public officials than the People's Initiative to Limit Property Taxation -- better known as Proposition 13.

Proponents say the 1978 initiative, approved with 65 percent of the vote, saved residents from being taxed out of their homes by skyrocketing property values. It lowered assessments to 1975 values, locked in a 1 percent rate, and mandated that values could be revised only when properties were sold or improved, while limiting inflationary increases to 2 percent.

Opponents say all this populist tax-cutting not only stunted state revenues and contributed to budget woes but inadvertently pushed a larger share of the tax burden onto residents and away from businesses. As the argument goes, assessments go up when properties sell at higher prices, and those usually are homes.

What brings this issue to the fore was a recent meeting of the West Contra Costa mayors and supervisors in El Cerrito, where San Francisco activist group Evolve lobbied for Proposition 13 reform. Evolve is one of several groups that wants commercial properties reassessed and taxes adjusted to reflect current market values.


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It hardly matters that the West Contra Costa representatives were divided on the issue. Even if they agreed, their vote would have produced only a resolution advocating reform. More interesting is the renewal of an age-old battle.

"This is just a continuation of 35 years of complaining about Prop. 13," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. It was Jarvis, notably, who led the taxpayer revolt that created Proposition 13.

Whatever your position, Proposition 13 stands as a groundbreaking measure, which inspired tax reforms elsewhere in the nation. In a state that cranks out initiatives the way hens lay eggs, the measure's 35-year survival shows its staying power. But there are plenty of folks who would like to chip away at its foundation.

The California Democratic Party endorsed Proposition 13 reform at its 2012 convention, and several state legislators have broached the subject since. Their arguments are positioned as attacks on corporate loopholes -- but the real goal is more tax revenue for government programs.

Coupal, whose group views taxes the way hikers view rattlesnakes, said trying to paint this as a citizen-vs.-corporation battle is inaccurate. There's a reason residences account for more property taxes than businesses. There are far more of them in the state.

"California has become an increasingly residence-based state," he said. "We have pretty much driven out all the major manufacturers in the last 35 years."

He also argues that there's logic to maintaining stable property taxes for the remaining industries.

"We have the highest marginal income tax rate in the United States," he said. "We have the highest sales tax and the highest gasoline tax. We have regulatory fees and charges that no other state imposes. If we make commercial enterprises pay more property taxes, that takes away one of the few things businesses in California have going for them."

The reform war will continue. There's too much smoke not to expect some flames. And the debate is sure to touch emotional chords -- education funding, corporate greed, relief for the middle class.

But don't expect Proposition 13 to change. The reason it's survived for 35 years is people like it the way it is.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.