Pete Rates the Propositions
Sensible opinions on the California ballot propositions      since 1980      by Pete Stahl

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Pete Rates the Propositions
November 1993

Pete recommends:
168   YES   Removing Obstacles for Low-Rent Housing Projects
169   YES   Multi-Subject Budget Bill
170   YES   Majority Vote on School Bonds
171   NO   Reassessment Exemption for County-Jumping Disaster Victims
172   YES   Extension of Half-Cent Sales Tax
173   YES   Use of Existing Bonds to Assist First-Time Home Buyers
174   NO   School Vouchers

Proposition 168: Removing Obstacles for Low-Rent Housing Projects – YES

When your city council or board of supervisors wants to build a jail, a garbage dump or a sewage treatment plant, it can do so without consulting the voters. It just holds hearings, passes a law, and builds the facility. Not so with public housing projects. Under current law, all low-rent public housing projects must be approved by the voters before they can be developed. Prop 168 will eliminate this requirement, giving low-rent housing projects the same treatment as other public projects. Of course the voters will still be able to petition for referendum after any housing projects are approved, just as they can for any new law. By lifting the public vote requirement, Prop 168 will eliminate an arbitrary obstacle to the development of badly-needed public housing projects. Its passage will help us address the problems of homelessness and poverty more quickly and meaningfully.

Prop 168 also narrows the definition of "low-rent public housing project" to include only those with 24 or more units (16 in rural areas) which will cause property values to decrease significantly or "whose physical appearance [will] have significant negative impact on the surrounding community." This means that small projects and those in crummy parts of town won't be subjected to the kinds of red tape meant for larger, more disruptive projects. This, too, is sensible, and should result in more decent housing opportunities for the poor.

Proposition 169: Multi-Subject Budget Bill – YES

Each summer a large, anonymous and confusing Budget Bill and many small, anonymous and confusing Trailer Bills emerge from the largely anonymous and confused State Legislature. The Trailers contain enabling legislation and compromise provisions crucial to getting the Budget passed. Prior to 1987 the Trailers were all folded into one bill and presented to the legislators as a single, take-it-or-leave-it package. But in 1987 the State Supreme Court ruled that the single trailer bill violated the "single-subject" provision of the state Constitution, and ordered it broken up. Prop 169 would allow the Legislature once again to combine all the trailers into one large, anonymous and confusing Mega-Trailer Bill.

The annual budget process has become a real morass in the years since 1987. Prop 169 will speed it up. Combining the Trailer Bills will reduce the number of floor votes, limiting the ability of small-minded, intransigent legislators to hold up the entire state by squabbling over some small aspect of a complex compromise. Under 169 the governor will be allowed to use the line-item veto, so individual components can be vetoed and overridden as they are now in separate trailers. The only effect of Prop 169 will be to make our Legislature more efficient. I can't see any harm in that.

Proposition 170: Majority Vote on School Bonds – YES

If the people in a county want to raise their sales taxes for general purposes, a simple majority of the voters can do so. But if the the people in a school district want to raise their property taxes to pay for new schools, they must get a two-thirds vote. Prop 170 will reduce from two-thirds to a simple majority the vote required to raise local property taxes for school construction bonds. This puts property taxes on equal footing with other taxes.

Property taxes already receive special protection under Prop 13, so they don't need the two-thirds vote safeguard. Remember, your property tax is limited to 1 % of the assessed value of your property. And the assessed value can increase only 2% a year, which is much lower than inflation and a tiny fraction of actual property value increases over the last decade. Given these remarkable limits, I can't see why property taxes need the additional protection of a two-thirds vote. Prop 170 will empower local voters to control their own property tax rates for their own benefit.

Proposition 171: Reassessment Exemption for County-Jumping Disaster Victims – NO

The famous Prop 13 of 1978 says that your property's assessed value can go up only 2% a year so long as it isn't remodeled or sold. So while your property may be worth twice what it was ten years ago, its assessed value will have barely changed. Since property taxes are based on assessed value, the size of your property tax bill depends more on how long you've owned your property than how much it's really worth. It's sort of like paying income tax based on how long you've had your current job. It's ridiculous.

Since Prop 13 passed, we voters have approved about a zillion little exemptions to let special people avoid being reassessed when they move or remodel: disaster victims, people who inherit their property, people over 55 who move into cheaper homes, people who fire-proof or earthquake-proof their property, people who live in historic buildings. Prop 171 extends reassessment exemptions to disaster victims who move to comparable property in a different county than their destroyed property.

On the surface Prop 171 seems charitable and innocuous. But every time we grant a reassessment exemption like Prop 171, we make the lunacy I pointed out above more palatable, and thus postpone the day when California comes to its senses and repeals Proposition 13. Prop 171 hopes to eliminate the complaints of yet another class of citizens upset with the system of "property tax based on length of ownership," and thus perpetuate a fundamentally flawed law.

I don't usually recommend protest votes, but I've taken up repeal of Prop 13 as a crusade. Despite today's soft housing market, soon it won't be unusual for people who have just bought their property to pay ten times more property taxes than their neighbors who have owned since 1978. It's as unfair and arbitrary to base taxation on length of ownership as it would be to base it on length of hair or length of name. Prop 171 will pass easily. Your "no" vote might just send a tiny message that we are unwilling to accept this law any more.

Proposition 172: Extension of Half-Cent Sales Tax – YES

I wish I had been able to include a clothespin with this edition, folks, because you're going to want to hold your nose when you vote for Prop 172.

Prop 172 is part of the 1993-94 state budget compromise, courtesy of your friendly governor and legislature in Sacramento. To balance the state budget, these wonderful human beings have plundered $2.3 billion in property taxes from the counties and diverted it to schools. This saved billions for the state budget, but it left the counties high and dry.

Remember the emergency temporary half-cent sales increase that went into effect after the 1989 earthquake? That increase is due to expire at the end of this year. Prop 172 will extend the half-cent sales tax forever and give the resulting $1.5 billion a year to the counties to pay for public safety, partially reimbursing them for the mugging they just got from the state. How the counties come up with the remaining $800 million is a mystery to me-I guess they'll just lay people off and cut services.

This stinks. It's an awful situation for the counties and everyone who depends on them. And I hate being asked to raise the sales tax, which is harshly regressive and hits hardest those least able to pay. But the only thing that could make things worse would be for Prop 172 to fail. If that happened, the counties would be out the entire $2.3 billion. As I often point out, you can only vote "yes" or "no" on these ballot propositions; there is no essay section. When presented with as aromatic a choice as Prop 172, we've got to vote for the lesser of the two evils, and that's "yes." As for your essays, send 'em to your beloved state legislators. They'll be so happy to hear from you.

Proposition 173: Use of Existing Bonds to Assist First-Time Home Buyers – YES

Once upon a ballot dreary, as you pondered, bored and weary,
Some obscure provision of a bill you'd just as soon ignore,
Suddenly you spied a measure which, although not quite a treasure,
Might help people purchase homes with incomes moderate or poor—
Just this goal and nothing more.

Back in '82, it states here, whent the mortgage interest rates here
Were so high a first-time buyer barely could get in the door,
Voters passed Prop 5, supplying rate reductions to those buying
Their first houses if their incomes were below a certain score—
Authorizing bonds galore.

In eleven years (and counting) of the program, great discounting
Of the Prime has driven interest rates down nearly to the floor.
So the problem, as you gather, isn't interest rates, but rather
Finding the down-payment for that condo out in Livermore.
"Just the place you're looking for!"

Of the bonds Prop 5 allotted, few were used, so it's been plotted
To allow them to reduce down-payments for the working poor.
Prop 173 will let the State use Prop 5 bonds to get the
Folks with lower incomes out of situations we deplore.
So vote "yes." That is your chore!

Proposition 174: School Vouchers – NO

Under Prop 174 the state would give every parent of school-aged children a voucher for about $2,600 per student, redeemable at any public or private school in the state. Parents would thus be able to take their children out of public schools and enroll them in private schools. Simply put, this will destroy California's public school system.

I admit there are cases where school vouchers would help students. Imagine a poor, single mother in the inner city, who is now forced to send her children to violence-plagued, drug-infested schools where teachers care more about staying alive than educating the apathetic students. School vouchers would let her send her kids to a nearby parochial school, where they would learn discipline as well as the fundamentals of reading, writing and religion. Nobody denies this would be an improvement.

But there are many things wrong with this picture. First of all, there aren't enough spaces in existing private schools to absorb all those who stand to gain by switching. So what happens to those who remain behind? Will class sizes go down? No way. Public schools lose funding for every student who leaves, so fewer students just means fewer teachers. Will the public schools be safer? Dream on. Smaller enrollments mean Jess law enforcement, not more. Will the competition from private schools cause the public schools to get their act in gear? Give me a break. Eventually the only students left in public schools will be those whose families don't care enough to send them elsewhere. Do you think these kids will be motivated to excel in school? Right.

Prop 174 imposes virtually no standards on private schools to be eligible for vouchers. The teachers don't have to be certified. The buildings don't have to be safe. The students don't have to learn. In fact, if Prop 174 passes, I'm considering opening a private school of my own. It will be in a leaky, drafty, asbestos-encrusted warehouse I can rent for cheap. 174 imposes no limits on class size, so I'll have one teacher and 400 students. At $2,600 a kid, I'll net over a million dollars a year. (174 allows schools to be run for profit.) I'll teach my students by letting them watch MTV for six hours a day. That'll keep them out of my hair, plus I'll be paid extra by the TV station for exposing the kids to their commercials. If attracting students becomes a problem, I've already got a solution. Under Prop 174, if a parent finds a school that charges less than the face-value of the voucher, they can keep the excess for future educational use. So I'll just offer the lowest price around, and parents will flock to my school. Maybe I'll start a price war with St Matthew's School across the street Oh, and I won't admit any Jews, Baptists, Lutherans, Catholics or Buddhists, because my students' parents feel those people are just trouble-makers. And I won't admit any handicapped children because they cost me too much and they'll just scare my students anyway. Under Prop 174 I'm within my rights to do these things.

I acknowledge that our public schools are a mess. They are over-regulated, under-staffed, bureaucracy-encumbered, and poor-performing. Class sizes are much too high. Depending on whom you ask, the teachers are either incompetent, overpaid and unaccountable, or overburdened, underpaid and in constant jeopardy of layoff. Yes, California's public schools are in trouble. But destroying them and going to unregulated private schools is.!!Ql the right answer. Prop 174 is simply too drastic.

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