By Joe Matthews.

Nothing is so depressing about California governance as the triumphs.

Make that “supposed” triumphs.

The media and pundits are over the moon about a minor, rational tweak to the rules of reassessment for commercial property. Since Prop 13 doesn’t change and is so rarely discussed, this is being talked about as if it’s some kind of historic breakthrough.

It’s not. It’s a narrow change, and California is actually good at making narrow changes. Unfortunately, California is also good at touting narrow changes as “reform” – thus making it harder to make the deeper reforms necessary to rationalize our broken budget, tax and governance systems. After this supposed breakthrough, Prop 13 remains unchanged in all the respects that make it the base for our broken systems.

The problem with Prop 13 isn’t really about property taxes. The problem with Prop 13 is its effects on democracy and governance. Perhaps property taxes could be higher, but the problem is that Prop 13 doesn’t allow for democratic, present-day decision-making on property taxes. It establishes a formula to govern property taxes that probably will outlive every single human being reading this.

More importantly, Prop 13 centralizes governance in Sacramento, and robs local governments of the ability to mange their own affairs and make serious changes. The requirement of a 2/3 vote of the people to pass local taxes is really the heart of Prop 13. Yes, taxes have been raised, but such hikes require campaigns and votes that distort policy and frustrate planning; local officials can’t do long-term planning or raise their own taxes under this system, and so they have an incentive to focus on the short term and on spending as much as they possibly can.

In Sacramento, the 2/3 vote requirement to raise taxes (since “reformed” to include fees and even tax cuts) creates its own democratic distortion, encouraging hostage taking and debt.

Focusing on the property tax part of Prop 13 misses the point. The split roll suffers from the same defect. Real Prop 13 reform requires reckoning with those supermajorities, and the injuries they have done – over nearly 40 years – to how our communities and our state are governed.

In that context, there is nothing in this latest news that’s worth celebrating.

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Originally posted at Fox & Hounds Daily.