What to Know About Proposition 13

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On Tuesday, voters across California will be asked to make a weighty decision about the way the state gets money for the things it needs.

The question on their ballots will be labeled “Proposition 13.”

But it is important to know that this is not, nor does it have any real bearing on, that Proposition 13 — the landmark 1978 initiative that cut property taxes, transformed the state’s finances and has since become a “third rail” in California politics.

In fact, for supporters of this Proposition 13, the one on next week’s ballot, it’s a sort of unfortunate accident of fate that they have the same name.

The proposition that’s on ballots this time is actually a $15 billion bond for public schools — from K-12 all the way through four-year universities — to improve decaying buildings or to construct desperately needed new ones.

Recently, I called the experts at the Public Policy Institute of California, the nonpartisan nonprofit organization, to tell me about the measure.

Here’s what you need to know:

Why is this on the ballot now? How did it get there?

There’s been talk for a long time about the fact that many California schools need improvements, Mark Baldassare, the institute’s president and chief executive, told me. But the question was how to get the money.

It was possible that the effort could’ve been broken into separate bond measures — say, one for elementary schools and a separate one for universities. But Mr. Baldassare said legislators were able to strike a deal to get the measure on the ballot this March.

What would it do?

At its core, the bond would allow the state to borrow money to pay for a lot of school improvements.

Of the $15 billion, $9 billion would go to public schools, mostly for renovation projects, and $6 billion will go to public higher education facilities. That’d be split evenly between community colleges, the California State University and the University of California.

The measure would change rules in order to make more state money available to poorer districts and make health- and life-safety-related renovation projects the highest priority for funding. Right now, requests for funding are “first come first served.”

It would also make it possible for local districts to borrow more money, as long as local voters give their signoff.

What are the arguments for and against it?

The arguments are pretty straightforward.

Julien Lafortune, a research fellow with the institute who specializes in education, said that, like a lot of public infrastructure, California’s schools — many of which were built during big population booms in the 1950s and ’60s, and again in the 1980s and ’90s — are “quite old.”

Kids don’t learn as well in aging schools riddled with asbestos or with ancient plumbing in the bathrooms. And children that are most hurt by the lack of funding for upgrades are in lower-income communities of color.

Mr. Lafortune said proponents cite the changes to the state matching and project prioritization rules as ways of helping narrow those divides.

Opponents like the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — which, incidentally, for our purposes today, has its roots in passing the first Proposition 13 — argue that the cost of paying off the bonds would be an extra drain on the state’s general fund. (According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, it’d cost about $740 million per year over 35 years.) It would also make it easier for local governments to sell bonds, which could in turn, cost local taxpayers.

Additionally, the association argued that a provision of the measure that would prioritize projects that will use union construction labor would drive up project costs.

Is it likely to pass?

Unlike initiatives placed on the ballot by voters, which tend attract a lot of outside money from interested parties, Mr. Baldassare said there didn’t seem to be much money pouring into this contest, most likely in part because it was placed on the ballot by lawmakers.

“That’s what proponents are looking for: No drama,” he said.

He said it’s notable that Proposition 13 is the only bond on the ballot, so it’s not competing with any other big asks that might make voters feel as if they’re piling up bills.

Furthermore, Mr. Baldassare added, “It’s quite remarkable that they were able to put something joint together on the ballot that ranges from preschool to K-12 to college,” which adds to an existing sense of consensus around the issue.

Finally, he said the fact that the measure would be appearing on the same ballot as the Democratic primary gives it a boost.

According to the institute’s most recent statewide survey, just more than half of likely voters, 51 percent, supported the measure, while 42 percent opposed it. But among Democrats, 69 percent said they would vote yes.

[Read more about how public bond financing works in California.]

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Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter, @jillcowan.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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