The Jury Talks Back


Proposition 13

Filed under: California Politics — aphrael @ 2:04 pm

This year’s Proposition 13 is a minor technical revision to the California Constitution; it’s so minor, and so technical, that it’s generated virtually no controversy (nobody submitted an argument against), and it wouldn’t even be on the ballot had the authors of a previous proposition not required that any modifications get voter approval.

I will probably be voting for this measure, while grumbling about it being on the ballot at all.


The state constitution contains very specific rules for property taxes, including rules that govern how the taxable value of a property is determined. In general, the taxable value of existing construction does not change until the property is sold, but new construction triggers a revaluation.

That said, certain kinds of new construction are exempt, including two exemptions for earthquake-safety improvements: (1) “reconstruction or improvement to a structure, constructed of unreinforced masonry bearing wall construction” (emphasis added) is constitutionally exempt for fifteen years if it was “necessary to comply with any local ordinance relating to seismic safety”, and (2) the Legislature has the power to exempt “the construction or installation of seismic retroffiting improvements or improvements utilizing earthquake hazard mitigation technologies” entirely … except that such rules may not override the 15-year exclusion for unreinforced masonry.

Proposition 13 replaces both of these with a new constitutional exemption for: “that portion of an existing structure that consists of the construction or reconstruction of seismic retrofitting components, as defined by the Legislature.” This new exemption runs until the property is sold.

My reading of these suggests that it’s a weakening of the exemption: the constitutional exemption for masonry buildings is replaced with an exemption subject to legislative redefinition. That weakens the rule, as the legislature can arbitrarily define away “seismic retrofitting components” or, alternately, define them to be so broad as to encompass everything under the sun. The law has no limitations which I can see on how the legislature defines the term.

The tradeoff is that this allows owners of unreinforced masonry buildings to exclude improvements for a longer period. Aside from the unfairness of treating unreinforced masonry building owners disfavorably, I think the argument is that the potentially shorter-term treatment reduces the economic value of the exclusion and thereby reduces the exclusion’s effectiveness as a bribe: there are some number of unreinforced masonry buildings which are not being retrofitted because the owner has decided that the cost is too high, and a longer-term exclusion would reduce the costs enough to make the safety improvements economically viable.

Both of these strike me as being a stretch. It seems unlikely to me that the legislature would define away this exclusion (because that would be interfering with earthquake safety, an unlikely proposition) or arbitrarily broaden it (because that would reduce state revenue, something the state legislature would be reluctant to approve). I also find it unlikely that there are a substantial number of people who (a) are not fixing safety issues with their unreinforced masonry buildings because they think the expense is unjustified and (b) would be convinced to do it by changing a fifteen-year exclusion into an exclusion-until-sale. There may be some, but I can’t believe it’s a substantial problem.

Either way, this seems like an issue with minor risk and minor reward. It’s somewhat hard to care about, and extremely difficult to get worked up about. That said, there appears to be a benefit (at least one person will likely be motivated to repair their property because of it) and there doesn’t appear to be a harm … and, to the extent that I think this is the sort of thing which we hire representatives to thresh out for us, the fact that our representatives put it on the ballot unanimously (while not being able to agree on anything else) counsels me to vote for it.

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