Paul L. Caron

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Proposition 13, Revisited

Evelyn Danforth (J.D. 2020, Stanford), Note, Proposition 13, Revisited, 73 Stan. L. Rev. 551 (2021):

In 1978, Californians overwhelmingly voted to add a suite of antitax measures to their state constitution. These provisions, together known as Proposition 13, ushered in a new era for the state—one that continues to define the contours of both public finance and private property ownership nearly a half century later.

On the heels of California’s first major political fight over Proposition 13 in decades, this Note seeks to reignite debate in the legal academy over the law’s wisdom as a matter of policy and its compatibility with the federal scheme in which it operates. To do so, this Note makes two distinctive contributions. 

First, this Note urges scholars and policymakers to look beyond Proposition 13’s well-documented fiscal impact. In addition to the stranglehold it has had on the state budget, Proposition 13—and especially its subsequent companion provisions—undermines equality and socioeconomic mobility by entrenching property wealth across generations. All the while, it contributes to California’s ever-worsening affordability crisis by giving local governments structural incentives to avoid building new housing.

Second, this Note considers avenues for reform. It first considers the prospect of securing change through litigation, drawing on unsuccessful challenges to Proposition 13 from the
1980s and 1990s to shape its analysis. Surprisingly, it finds that many of the most promising legal arguments leveled against Proposition 13 were never actually adjudicated on the merits. After excavating those untested challenges, this Note suggests that federal constitutional claims rooted in Proposition 13’s impact on interstate mobility are the most promising terrain for future litigation—although even those claims face doctrinal hurdles. It then considers the viability of reform through the political process, drawing on the state’s experience with two recent ballot initiatives limiting the measure’s scope.

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