Tensions around an upcoming statewide ballot measure reached a high point during the Santa Clara Unified School District meeting last week, when advocates and detractors of the initiative to reform Proposition 13, pled their cases to the board.
Santa Clara County Assessor Larry Stone, a vocal opponent of the measure, faced off with advocates of the measure, including Democratic party leaders, the League of Women Voters and labor advocates — those Stone usually counts as allies. The evening was tense, according to Stone and advocates who were present, as each side spoke about why the school board should or should not support the ballot measure.
The meeting on Thursday was one of nearly two dozen public meetings in which Stone spoke publicly against reforming the decades old law, including school boards, business organizations and government meetings.
Prop 13, passed in 1978, essentially freezes property taxes in place throughout the state until an owner sells their land or property. The measure, known as Schools and Community First, is up for a vote by Californians in November this year, and would essentially create a “split roll,” keeping residential property taxes as-is, but taxing commercial and industrial properties based on the true value.
Stone is an unlikely opponent to the measure. The businessman-turned-veteran-politician has long rallied against Prop. 13, voting not to support it while on the Sunnyvale City Council.
“I was a young councilmember in the city of Sunnyvale and I didn’t vote for Prop. 13, and I wouldn’t vote for it again today if it was on the ballot,” he said. “I think it is one of the two worst things to happen in California.”
Yet, Stone is one of the most vocal voices against voting for the measure. Though he wants reform of the law, the current version of the measure will be “impossible” to implement due to a lack of resources among assessor offices and time, he said.
“Something needs to be done, but the ballot question — as it is worded — would be a catastrophic failure for assessors,” Stone said. “It would not be difficult for assessors to implement as stated, it would be impossible.”
Those advocating for the measure say it has been crafted thoughtfully and though it will take a lot of work, they insist it can offer the flexibility the assessor offices need to implement the new tax system over time.
“We are not the first state to do this at all,” said Jessica Vollmer, organizing director for Working Partnerships USA. “There are other examples to look at across the country.”
As Californians prepare for a November 2020 vote on the split roll measure, Stone has been taking his message with him to cities, business groups and school districts. He’s given about 20 talks on the matter over the better part of a year, as local leaders ask him to weigh in, he said.
Notably the language of the ballot question has been approved, but may still change if advocates get enough signatures to update the measure — which both Stone and those who have advocated for the ballot measure say is likely.
But neither version is the answer to Proposition 13 reform, Stone insists, because they come with parts that he sees as impossible to enforce and would require doubling the assessor’s staff faster than is possible.
Vollmer disagrees. She and more than a dozen others showed up to the Thursday night SCUSD meeting to say as much.
Supporters say the measure will address inequities in the state’s real estate market and drum up billions of dollars of much-needed funding for communities and schools. Opponents say the measure would have negative impacts on some businesses, or in Stone’s case, would be impossible to implement in the near-term because of how much work would need to be done.
While Stone commended the local advocates as “civil,” he acknowledged that tensions were high. He said he hasn’t encountered such pushback at previous meetings he’s attended to give the same talk.
But Vollmer said there will likely be more of those types of meetings to come. She’s been aware that Stone has been advocating against the measure for the past year, but said Thursday was the first time she’d heard his talk in person and that it was “unconvincing” to her.
“We’ve been hearing that this is essentially what he’s been saying, which is unfortunate,” she said. “He is not being fully honest in his presentations. He’s really just picking and choosing whatever he can (from the measure) to lift up his position.”
She and others are organizing by proactively meeting with local decisionmakers to explain why they support the measure, and will also monitor where Stone is speaking in the future so they can show up to offer their perspective on the matter.
“We have built a coalition in Santa Clara County and we’re up to 17 organizations in social justice, faith, good democracy organizations, student-led organizations, seniors, organized labor,” Vollmer said. “We are coordinating with each other to get to as many of these as we can, whether Larry’s there or not.”
Contact Janice Bitters at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.
Editor’s Note: Derecka Mehrens, executive director of Working Partnerships USA , serves on San José Spotlight’s Board of Directors.