Taxing the rich and expanding the vote on California’s ballot
Proposition 15 would force tax-dodger Disney to pay its fair share of taxes. | Chris Carlson/AP

LOS ANGELES — Who wouldn’t want to start taxing Disney and Chevron corporate-owned property at today’s fair value to fund schools and local public services such as parks, libraries, homeless services, health clinics, and public transit? This is the question Proposition 15 asks voters to decide on the California ballot this year.

Who wouldn’t want to allow people on parole to vote? How about allowing 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections if they will be 18 by the time of the general election?

Reforming the cash bail system? Affirmative action? Labor rights? Rent control? They’re all on the ballot.

In these ways, the work of democracy proceeds inch by inch, step by step. The results of the vote on California propositions become part of state law, and not simply by virtue of a court ruling. This is the power of the people.

In 34 states around the country, voters this year will be asked to weigh in on 124 statewide ballot measures that have certified for the ballot. California alone has around 10 percent of them, with 12 ballot measures to decide. With approximately one out of eight people living in the United States a resident of California, this state’s generally leaning-liberal voters often reflect trends occurring, or on the horizon, throughout the nation.

Progressive voters rely on the endorsements of the California Federation of Labor (CFL) or their local County Federation of Labor, as well as other organizations—civic, religious, consumer, environmental and special interest groups—to help formulate their choices. In most cases, the recommendations line up squarely according to the political and social values implicit in each measure. Occasionally, however, voters encounter honest philosophical differences that lead to different endorsements, or in some cases, no recommendation.

Out of 12 ballot measures this year, ranging from Prop 14 to Prop 25, some have captured widespread voter engagement, with highly organized campaigns. Democratic Socialists of America, for example, has focused its attention solely on Proposition 15, concerning property taxation, and all other progressive groups share DSA’s support for this measure.

Let’s take a look.

Property taxes, affirmative action

Proposition 15: Increases Funding for Public Schools, Community Colleges, and Local Government Services by Changing Tax Assessment of Commercial and Industrial Property. This proposition is the one that is receiving the most attention this year, with a clear Yes across the board of liberal, left, and progressive groups. (By contrast, the California Chamber of Commerce and the real estate industry predictably say No.)

Prop 15 proposes to correct the mistakes of 1978’s infamous Prop 13, which stabilized property taxes, without distinguishing between residential and commercial property. Therefore, a mega-sized property owner, such as Disney or Chevron, is still paying property taxes based on 1978 assessments. As a result, California schools have become severely underfunded, with communities of color affected the most. The state rates 39th in the nation in per pupil spending. The continuing authority of Prop 13 has been called “the dark shadow of the Reagan Revolution.”

Prop 15 will restore an estimated $11.5 billion annually to schools and communities by closing property tax loopholes benefiting wealthy corporations, without raising taxes on small businesses, renters, and homeowners. Aside from schools, revenue generated by Prop 15 will also fund public services, parks, healthcare, transit, and more. It only requires owners of commercial properties with assessed value over $3 million to pay taxes based on market value (rather than the original purchase price decades ago). In the knowledge that 26% of U.S. billionaires live in California, DSA puts it in unmistakably sharp dimension: “The capitalist class continues to hoard absurd levels of profit while California schools, services, and the community suffer…. Now is the time to tax the rich….” As a sign of how skewed wealth has become in our country today, only 10% of the biggest commercial properties will yield 92% of the expected revenue from Prop 15.

Proposition 16: Authorizes California Repeal Proposition 209 Affirmative Action Amendment. This measure is another that repeals the effects of a previous one, Prop 209 from 1996, which banned affirmative action programs in public employment, public education, and public contracting in the state, objectively promoting racial discrimination and also affecting equal opportunities and access for women.

The California Nurses Association (CNA) released its ringing endorsement of Prop 16 on Sept. 15. “As nurses,” said CNA President Cathy Kennedy, RN, “we see every day how race, wealth, employment, and education intersect to affect the health of our patients. We know these social determinants of health can mean the difference between life and death for our patients, we have seen that very clearly as we look at how COVID-19 has ravaged our Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities.” Stephanie Roberson, CNA director of government relations, said, “For over a quarter-century, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities have lost equal opportunity programs,” and noted that “Women-owned businesses have lost more than $1.1 billion a year since the repeal.”

Prop 16 came about through the efforts of California Assemblymember Shirley Weber, author of a bill that put the measure on the ballot. Weber says that the COVID-19 pandemic “as well as recent tragedies of police violence, is forcing Californians to acknowledge the deep-seated inequality and far-reaching institutional failures that show that your race and gender still matter.”

The important point to remember is that the proposition would remove the ban on affirmative action in public employment: It would still be left to schools and other local agencies and bodies to keep them in place or institute them if and as they deem appropriate. Every progressive group supports this measure.

Two measures on voting rights

Proposition 17: Authorizes California Voting Rights Restoration for Persons on Parole Amendment. California allows a person on probation to vote, even as probation is part of the sentence. Prop 17 would authorize persons on parole to vote when the individual is released from prison awaiting the end of the sentence. After a person serves their sentence, they would similarly be allowed to reenter democratic society, including reclaiming the right to vote. This measure was placed on the ballot by the Legislature, recognizing that Black and brown people are disproportionately incarcerated and thus disenfranchised at a greater rate. The ban on parolees voting applies to an estimated 40,000 people in the state. This proposition has the progressive vote.

Proposition 18: California Voting for 17-Year-Olds Amendment. Prop 18 would amend the state constitution to allow a 17-year-old to vote in a primary election, thus joining 19 other states that already allow it if they will turn 18 by the time of the general election. This encourages youthful voter engagement in the political process and opens up more space for voter education and registration programs in schools. This measure, too, was placed on the ballot by the Legislature. The progressive vote is for this measure.

Criminal justice, rent control

Proposition 20: Restricts Parole for Nonviolent Offenders. Authorizes Felony Sentences for Certain Offenses Currently Treated Only as Misdemeanors. Prop 20 earns a vote No from both the CFL and LWVC (and a Yes from the right-wing dominated state Chamber of Commerce). Basically, Prop 20 rolls back certain reforms made in earlier criminal justice measures, Prop 47 in 2014 and Prop 57 in 2016, which aimed at reducing the prison population and promoting rehabilitation. It reflects pushback from the “get tough on crime” crowd. “Prop 20 sends California in the wrong direction,” says LWVC, “at a time when there is forward momentum toward smart justice approaches that increase public safety and reduce costs to the state.”

Proposition 21: Expands Local Government’s Authority to Enact Rent Control on Residential Property. At a time of wealth concentration, pandemic, unemployment, and homelessness seemingly out of control, California’s paucity of affordable housing is an ever-growing issue. Rent control, a legal cap on what property owners can charge tenants came up in Prop 10 in 2018, which was defeated, although in its wake, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a rent control law considered among the strongest statewide caps anywhere in the U.S.

Prop 21 is somewhat less forceful than Prop 10, in that it would allow cities and counties to apply rent control only on “older” housing built more than 15 years ago (excepting some single-family homes). The ballot measure does not impose universal, statewide rent control outright, but would allow local governments to do so in their own manner.

Overriding existing local rent control rules, this statewide measure would open up many more housing units to rental caps. The CFL offers no recommendation on Prop 21, but as could be expected, the Chamber of Commerce says No. The Los Angeles Times, newspaper of record in what many call the epicenter of homelessness in America, editorialized a Yes on 21.

“Contractors,” cash bail

Proposition 22: Changes Employment Classification Rules for App-based Transportation and Delivery Drivers. This is one of the hot-button issues on the ballot this year. It flows out of the recently enacted Assembly Bill 5, which determined new criteria for the employment status of an estimated 1 million Californians.

Prop 22 is a creation of app-driven corporations to eviscerate AB 5 in the name of “flexibility.” Though still designating their drivers as “independent contractors,” Prop 22 makes certain concessions on issues such as a guaranteed hourly wage (for time spent at the wheel), a health insurance benefit for some drivers, some medical and disability benefits in case of injury on the job, rest periods, sexual harassment, and criminal background checks. App-based contractors, in other words, would not be eligible for the same benefits to which other workers are entitled.

Courage California recommends a strong No on Prop 22: “Workers for apps like Lyft, Uber, and DoorDash are not protected by minimum wage, overtime, or workers’ compensation laws. These essential workers are entitled to labor protections, just like other employees, but Proposition 22 classifies these workers as contractors so corporations can avoid investing in their workers and pad their own bottom lines. That’s why Lyft, Uber, and DoorDash are spending millions to pass Proposition 22.”

Newspaper ads are becoming more frequent now, and flyers urging voters to vote Yes on Prop 22 are appearing in mailboxes, featuring almost all people of color as app-based “independent contractor” drivers. According to law, major funders of such voter communications must be identified, and sure enough, there they are: Lyft, Uber Technologies, and DoorDash. The Chamber of Commerce, of course, agrees with them and says Yes, but the overwhelming progressive consensus is No on Prop 22.

Proposition 25: Referendum to Overturn 2018 Law that Replaced Money Bail System with a System Based on Public Safety Risk. There’s really no controversy on this one, which is a referendum rather than a measure. It comes down to a vote on cash bail. The CFL says Yes.

In this referendum, voters are being asked to keep or reject a 2018 law abolishing cash bail in California. The wording in the title of this measure is highly confusing, so beware: A Yes vote is not to “overturn” the 2018 law but to approve and keep it. A No vote would overturn it.

Because the bail industry quickly amassed enough signatures to challenge the 2018 law, it has not yet gone into effect, awaiting this final decision by the voters.

Again, let’s hear the succinct argument that the LWVC makes:

“A YES vote on Prop 25 is a vote to replace the money bail system with the use of pretrial risk assessment tools that focus on safety and flight risk. It is estimated that almost 46,000 Californians, a disproportionate number of whom are Black and Latinx, are being held in jail but not yet sentenced. Cash bail both criminalizes poverty and reflects the systemic racism that plagues our criminal legal process. California must move away from the money bail system to create a fairer and more equitable criminal legal system that balances public safety with the presumption of innocence. People who pose little threat to public safety should not be subject to losing their jobs, homes, and families [and go into long-term debt!] simply because they lack the money to pay for release from jail while awaiting their day in court. While the new law that would go into effect with a YES vote is not perfect, it can be amended by the legislature. A NO vote, however, could enshrine cash bail and prevent future legislative action to curtail the commercial  bail industry.”

Seniors

Proposition 19: Property Tax Transfers, Exemptions, and Revenue for Wildfire Agencies and Counties Amendment. If approved, Californians 55 or older would be able to buy a new home, but their property tax bill would remain at the old level or less, according to the new home’s value. The fear of a higher property tax currently makes older people hesitant to move. Prop 19 also grants this tax break in case of wildfire and other natural disaster loss of a home. A senior (or severely disabled person) could do this up to three times. This measure was instigated by the California Realtors Assn., whose interest clearly lies in selling more homes.

Some counties where such tax relief already exists do not apply the benefit outride that county, so Prop 19 makes it statewide. Where it has existed, it has been subject to abuse: A parent transfers their home to an adult child, and the property tax remains unchanged. The adult child does not live in that home, however, but rather rents it out as income property. Prop 19 limits this benefit to homes that are actually lived in by the beneficiary. Revenues collected by this correction would be allocated toward firefighting efforts.

The CFL, the California Nurses Association, the Democratic Party, and Gov. Newsom endorse this populist-sounding measure, but the LWVC opposes it, arguing that it offers “tax breaks to people who do not need them” and “does nothing to help low-income seniors or families struggling to find housing.” The Los Angeles Times editorialized (Sept. 17), describing it as “a cynical and unwelcome melding of good and bad tax proposals. Voters should reject it.”

Privacy, dialysis, and stem cells

Proposition 24: Amends Consumer Privacy Laws. This is one of the thorniest measures on the ballot this year. A sweeping new consumer privacy law went into effect in California at the beginning of 2020, with strict enforcement as of July 1. While it provides individuals with greater control over all kinds of data that businesses harvest on them, much of it irrelevant to the business service provided, consumers must be proactive in asking that their information be deleted. Businesses may not charge customers more if they request more privacy.

Businesses prevented from selling consumer data claimed an exemption if they weren’t “selling” but “sharing.” Prop 24 aims to rein in such “sharing,” attempting to subject businesses to these greater privacy rules. Penalties for abuse of the new measures would increase and the state would create a new consumer protection agency.

On the surface, this sounds good. The CFL and the Democratic Party are neutral on Prop 24, and the Los Angeles Times endorses it. Standing opposed to it are such diverse groups as the ACLU and the state Republican Party, the Consumer Federation of California, Color of Change, California Small Business Coalition, and Media Alliance. But the LWVC has issued a forceful and persuasive objection to Prop 24, point by point refuting the loopholes the wordy measure, difficult to read and comprehend, contains. The Bakersfield Californian put it succinctly: Prop 24  “pretends to give consumers more protection over the sharing of private information, but it doesn’t.”

Voters need to be highly wary of this one.

Proposition 23: Authorizes State Regulation of Kidney Dialysis Clinics. Establishes Minimum Staffing and Other Requirements. Two years ago California voters were asked to approve Prop 8, and establish new rules governing kidney dialysis clinics in the state. This is essentially the same measure, requiring a physician to be present during clonic operating hours, equal care offered to patients regardless of how their payment is covered, reporting more detailed information about patient infections, and an enhanced role for the state Department of Public Health.

DaVita and Fresenius Medical Care are the two corporations together controlling some 72% of the dialysis business in the state. Prop 23 is backed by the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers (SEIU-UHW) as a measure to limit the companies’ profitability and to secure higher levels of care and treatment for patients. CFL urges a Yes vote on Prop 23.

Proposition 14: Authorizes Bonds to Continue Funding Stem Cell and Other Medical Research. This measure has not excited a great deal of interest. Labor and other progressive organizations are not strongly recommending a vote either way. Considering how promising stem cell science is—and also how conservatives instinctively tend to oppose it based on the use of human tissue—most progressives are inclined to support funding for stem cell research. But the language of the measure raises other concerns. Here is what the considered view of the League of Women Voters of California (LWVC) states:

“While the League of Women Voters of California supports ongoing stem cell research, we are neutral on Prop 14 because of the funding mechanism used and because of the requirement for a supermajority vote to amend its provisions. Prop 14 would authorize the use of general obligation bonds to continue funding stem cell research through the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). However, general obligation bonds are designed for long-term financing of capital projects, purchase of facilities for public use, and repair or retrofitting of public facilities and structures – not for funding specialized research by an entity that has little state oversight. Furthermore, the legislature is prohibited from changing the law without a 70 percent supermajority vote, thereby restricting state representatives’ ability to carry out their responsibilities. Finally, profits from intellectual property agreements could only be spent on CIRM-funded research treatments, limiting the state’s flexibility to spend funds on matters that might be more urgent.”

The CFL is neutral on this one, and for good reason.

A handy summary in numerical order:

14        Neutral

15        Yes

16        Yes

17        Yes

18        Yes

19        No

20        No

21        Yes

22        No

23        Yes

24        No

25        Yes


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski. He received the Better Lemons "Up Late" Critic Award for 2019, awarded to the most prolific critic. His latest project is translating the fiction of Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese. The first book, Five Days, Five Nights, is available from International Publishers NY.

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