Debunking one of the common Prop. 13 myths


Los Angeles County Assessor Jeffrey Prang released a forecast for the 2023 property assessment roll last week. “Taxable property values are anticipated to increase approximately 5% over 2022,” Prang reported, despite “what can be characterized as a tumultuous year in the real estate market.”

The story behind the steady growth of the property tax roll in L.A. County, and in California more broadly, is Proposition 13. The 1978 citizens’ initiative capped annual increases in the assessed value of a property at 2% until there was a change of ownership, as defined in law. This has produced a steady increase in the total assessed value of property, providing stability for local government revenues and for taxpayers.

Los Angeles County property tax values are now nearly $2 trillion. According to the assessor, “The nearly $2 trillion estimated total net value translates into about $20 billion in property tax dollars for vital public services such as public education, first responders and healthcare workers, as well as other County services,” reflecting overall property value growth “for the 13th consecutive year.”

Yet myths about Proposition 13 persist. In a recent Senate hearing, Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, described the “heat” he had received for voting to put Proposition 19 on the ballot in 2020. The measure contained provisions that allowed some homeowners to move to a new home while retaining their current home’s lower property tax assessment, protected from excessive increases by Proposition 13.

“I took some heat from people who said, ‘Why are you expanding Prop. 13? It was after Prop. 13 that the school funding collapsed,’” Wiener said, before explaining that he voted to put Prop. 19 on the ballot because it was a tax increase on children who inherited their parents’ property.

It is factually false that “school funding collapsed” after Prop. 13.

The U.S. Department of Education publishes data on per-pupil spending in public elementary and secondary schools by state and by year, comparing the annual spending in constant 2021-22 dollars. The data can be found online in the National Center for Education Statistics’ Digest of Education Statistics, in table 236.70.

In the 1969-70 school year, California’s per-pupil spending was $6,474. (That’s the inflation-adjusted number. The nominal dollar amount at the time was $867.)

Proposition 13 was adopted in 1978. In the 1979-80 school year, per-pupil spending in California went up to $8,238. It rose to $9,752 in 1989-90, to $10,663 in 1999-2000, and to $12,596 in 2009-10.

In 2019-20, the most recent year for which statistics are available on the U.S. government site, per-pupil spending in California was $15,860.

The state’s Department of Finance projects per-pupil spending will be $17,444 for the nearly 5.9 million students enrolled in grades K-12 in California’s public schools in 2023-24.

According to the May revision of the governor’s budget, the state will spend a total of $127.2 billion on K-12 education.

Anyone who believes California would be better off if only we could go back to the school funding level before Proposition 13 should consider this: If per-pupil spending was restored to the pre-Proposition 13 level in 1969-70, the state’s total spending on K-12 education for 2023-24 would be approximately $38.2 billion.

That’s $89 billion less than we’re paying now.

Maybe the Legislature should focus on where the money is going.

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