While members of California's Legislature were mostly busy campaigning for new terms before last Tuesday's primary, they found some time to do some actual legislating.

That's probably an ungenerous description because by advancing two bills in particular, they showed a fair bit of courage.

We're used to hearing hot-button issues described as a political "third rail," meaning it would be suicidal for elected officials to touch the topic, just like the electrified rail that powers some trains. Proposition 13 and the ballot-initiative system are among California's untouchables.

Late last month, lawmakers touched both third rails, advancing a pair of bills before the end-of-May deadline for legislation to be approved by the house in which it originated and sent to the other house. They should be applauded for doing so.

The bills don't do away with either Prop. 13's protections for property owners nor the public's ability to directly change state law via initiative voting. That would be political suicide.

But the bill on Prop. 13 tightens the 36-year-old law, eliminating a flaw that allowed some buyers of commercial real estate to avoid having the property's value reassessed and thus avoid paying higher property taxes.


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Commercial property isn't reassessed as long as no individual purchases a 50 percent or higher stake. So partnerships would arrange things so nobody had more than 49 percent.

That's against the spirit of Prop. 13. If big, commercial real-estate owners aren't paying their share, then the tax burden shifts to residential property owners.

Family homes are reassessed when they're sold. Commercial property should be too.

AB2372, authored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco calls for reassessments anytime at least 90 percent of a property is sold, no matter who buys how big a financial interest.

Needing a two-thirds vote, it passed the Assembly 56-9, with seven Republicans joining Democrats in support.

Even the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, named for Prop. 13's creator, and most business groups dropped their opposition to AB2372 after amendments to refine its definition of property ownership.

Jarvis Association President Jon Coupal, bristling at the suggestion Prop. 13 had a loophole, wrote that this is a technical change that strengthens the law by removing a legitimate complaint about it.

The bill about initiatives is simpler. SB1253, by Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, would allow for legislative hearings on proposed initiatives early in the process of putting them on the ballot and calls for disclosure of initiative campaigns' top financial backers.

The bill passed the Senate 29-8 and goes to the Assembly. It would be a good, specific improvement for the initiative system.

Prop. 13. The initiative system. Who knows what the Legislature can accomplish if it isn't afraid to touch the touchiest subjects?