OPINION When it passed in 1978, Proposition 13 was advertised as a law to protect fixed-income seniors from losing their homes. In reality, Prop. 13 was a guise to shrink the size of government and cut vital public services like education, health care, transportation, public safety, and recreation. Now, 30 years later, it is one of the principle reasons so many seniors, children, homeless, and other vulnerable California residents are losing their vital safety net.
Using scare tactics showing seniors on the street, supporters of Prop. 13 convinced homeowners that the measure was created for their protection. But homeowners received only 24 percent of the tax refunds after Prop. 13 was passed in 1978. Far from helping seniors and working families under economic pressure, Prop. 13 opened a giant loophole in our tax structure that transferred a significant tax burden away from major corporations and onto individuals.
This tremendous transfer of responsibility from commercial property owners to average families is clear from the data here in San Francisco. Thirty years ago in San Francisco, commercial property owners contributed 59 percent of property tax revenues, and residential property owners contributed 41 percent. Today, we see a virtual flip: commercial property owners contributed just 43 percent of property taxes in 2008, while residential property owners contributed 57 percent. A similar dynamic can be found in Los Angeles. According to the Los Angeles County Assessor, in the period between 1975 and today, commercial property contributions to the tax roll have decreased from about 47 percent to just above 30 percent. In that same period, the burden of the tax roll coming from homeowners has increased by more than 15 percent.
As corporate property owners continue to be subsidized by the tax loophole in Prop. 13, these lost tax dollars are handicapping our ability as a state to educate our children, keep our streets safe, protect the most vulnerable, and invest in important infrastructure projects.
At one point, California was considered America's model economy. We had the best public education system in the country. Our booming economy kept unemployment low and opened the door to opportunity for millions of families. We invested in our people and provided protections for the most needy. The scenario today couldn't be any more different.
But tough times present the best opportunity for change. I am organizing a grassroots movement of Californians who are behind a "split roll" system that would literally split the property tax rolls assigning different tax levels to corporations and homeowners and leveling the property tax playing field by eliminating the property tax loophole for corporations. The state Board of qualization estimates that a split roll could generate up to $7.5 billion in annual revenue.
Thousands have already been mobilized in this campaign. Our efforts have been featured in news outlets throughout the state, including the Sacramento Bee, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Modesto Bee, KQED, and the Stockton Record, among many others.
The road to reform is certainly going to be difficult. Over the past few years we have seen numerous attempts to reform Prop. 13, but they have all ultimately foundered due to the tremendous pressure that special interest groups can exert in Sacramento. That's why we need to organize a powerful grassroots campaign that can change minds one by one. *
Phil Ting is San Francisco Assessor-Recorder. Learn more about his Close the Loophole campaign at www.closetheloophole.com  and facebook.com/closetheloophole.