Future Prop 13’s days may be numbered if Assemblyman O’Donnell’s bill passes

Thursday, March 5, 2020

California’s lone statewide ballot measure appears headed for defeat and the bill’s author thinks that its fate rested on its designated number, one that he hopes the state legislature will agree to retire after introducing legislation to permanently put 13 to bed.

Proposition 13, authored by Long Beach Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, would authorize a $15 billion bond for school modernization and construction projects with the bulk of funding ($9 million) going toward elementary schools. However, repaying the bill would cost taxpayers about $740 million a year for 35 years, something that 55% of voters said no to as of Thursday.

Or did they? O’Donnell thinks that the bill’s standing—he’s not ready to admit defeat given the number of outstanding ballots—is due more to its numbering, rather than its content. By being emblazoned with “13” O’Donnell’s education bill ran into some bad luck considering the 1978 version of Prop 13 established fiercely protected property tax limits.

Members of the public seized the opportunity to link the two propositions with countless social media posts claiming that a vote for the 2020 Proposition 13 would result in higher property taxes and rental increases.

California’s system for assigning numbers to ballot measures has changed over the decades. The original system numbered ballot measures starting at 1 every election cycle which led to confusion with back-to-back election years having the same proposition numbers.

The state then moved to a system where proposition numbers were not reused but used as a starting point for the next election. For instance, if there were 14 ballot measures one year, the next year’s ballot measures would start at the number 15. But that system led to proposition numbers in the hundreds.

The current system, which started in 1998, assigns measures starting with the number 1 but resets after 10 years. The 2018 Housing Programs and Veterans’ Loans Bond was the most recent Proposition 1. O’Donnell’s proposition was the thirteenth statewide measure since the 2018 reset.

Between confusion of what Prop 13 was on the ballot for the March 3 primary and a ballot initiative process that’s underway to put a revision of the 1978 law on the Nov. 3 general election ballot, the cards may have been stacked against the school bond.

“I am living the perfect storm,” O’Donnell said.

So in the coming weeks O’Donnell will seek to make sure this kind of situation does not play out in the future. The measure made it to the ballot by passing through both the Assembly (98.7 %) and the State Senate (87.5%) with bipartisan support and O’Donnell said that both Republicans and Democrats have approached him in support of the idea in the past few days.

“When voters are confused they vote no,” O’Donnell said. “And there was a lot of confusion.”

If the bond does end up missing the 50%-plus-one threshold to win once vote totals are certified in early April it would become the first school bond measure to fail in a quarter century. However there could be millions of outstanding ballots to sort through statewide. On Wednesday, Los Angeles County election officials said that it had over 570,000 uncounted ballots.

O’Donnell’s legislation to retire the number could be heard as soon as the next few months. He said there are no plans to hang the number from the ceiling of assembly chamber if the bill passes.