Extra resources for students of State and Local Government 180, an upper-division GE class in the Government Department at Sacramento State University
Wednesday, December 28, 2011
San Francisco Chronicle: Lawsuit to overturn a portion of Proposition 13
Overturning of Prop. 13 sought in lawsuit
Bob Egelko, Chronicle Staff Writer
San Francisco ChronicleDecember 28, 2011 04:00 AM
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Photo by Rich Pedroncelli / ASSOCIATED PRESS
Jon Coupal, head of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, Proposition 13's leading proponent, takes the suit seriously.
Proposition 13, which revolutionized government financing in California by slashing property taxes and erecting new barriers to other state and local tax increases, was upheld by the state Supreme Court soon after it passed in 1978, seemingly ending all questions about its legality.
But a team of lawyers headed by a former federal appeals court judge has sued to overturn a crucial provision of Prop. 13 - the requirement of a two-thirds legislative vote to raise state taxes.
The lawyers argue that the two-thirds requirement has been undermined by more recent decisions of the state's high court. In particular, they contend, the court's May 2009 ruling on same-sex marriage defined the limits on voters' power to amend the California Constitution by initiative, and showed that a change as far-reaching as the two-thirds requirement exceeds those limits.
The requirement "upsets the bedrock principle of lawmaking by majority rule upon which the California Constitution was founded," attorney William Norris said in papers filed with a state appeals court in Los Angeles.
That change "restructured California's basic governmental plan by granting a minority in either house of the Legislature a veto over the majority's exercise of the core legislative power to raise revenue by taxation," Norris said.
Gay-rights advocates used a similar argument to try to overturn Proposition 8, the 2008 initiative that outlawed same-sex marriage in California.
A different way
They said it altered the state's constitutional system in a different way - not by increasing any voting requirements, but by using the initiative process to attack the concept of equality.
Such a change, Prop. 8's opponents claimed, amounted to a "revision" of the state Constitution, and not merely an amendment. Constitutional revisions can be placed on the ballot only by the Legislature or a constitutional convention, while amendments can be circulated as initiatives.
The state Supreme Court disagreed. In a 6-1 ruling, then-Chief Justice Ronald George said Prop. 8 was not a constitutional revision because it did not "make a far-reaching change in the fundamental governmental structure or the foundational power of its branches."
That's just what Prop. 13 did, by eliminating majority rule for tax increases and making it virtually impossible for a divided Legislature to raise money for everyday programs, argued Norris, a former judge on the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
He noted that George said in a speech later in 2009 that Prop. 13's two-thirds vote requirement has played a key role in making California's government "dysfunctional."
Balance of power
If the suit succeeds, it would restore majority-vote legislative approval for state tax increases - while leaving Prop. 13's property tax reductions intact. It would also change the balance of power in Sacramento, where minority Republicans routinely unite to prevent any increased levies.
Prop. 13's chief advocate, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, is taking the suit seriously, said Jonathan Coupal, the association's president and a member of the legal team defending the measure. But Coupal said the state Supreme Court decided in 1978 that the measure was a valid initiative and it's not likely to reconsider that conclusion.
"Prop. 13 was not the first (state) constitutional provision that required a two-thirds vote," Coupal said, referring to long-standing identical standards for general obligation bonds and, until recently, the state budget.
"Voters in 1978 considered all these arguments and rejected them."