Election could move California further left on taxes, race

California Politics

The California State flag flies outside City Hall, in Los Angeles, California on January 27, 2017.
(MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Tuesday’s election will test the boundaries of California’s left-leaning politics as a new generation of state voters is being asked to roll back affirmative action and property tax laws put in place decades ago.

California is one of the nation’s most Democratic states — the party holds every statewide office, dominates the Legislature and congressional delegation, and outnumbers registered Republicans by nearly 2-to-1.

The state is famous — or notorious — for liberal-minded policies that have established some of the nation’s highest taxes, pumped billions of dollars into the homeless crisis that appears only to worsen and cut greenhouse gases to fight climate change, which critics blame for higher energy costs.

The 12 propositions on the state ballot provide many issues to motivate voters and influence California’s direction on worker protections, crime and punishment, voter rights and rent control.

But the signature questions involve taxes and affirmative action.

Voters are being asked to unspool part of landmark Proposition 13, the 1970s law that set strict limits on property tax increases and fueled a national tax revolt. A ballot proposal being pushed by public worker unions would peel back protections for commercial and industrial property and impose as much as $12.5 billion in new taxes to benefit schools and local governments.

Voters are also being asked to overturn a 1996 law that made it illegal for state and local governments to grant preferential treatment, or discriminate against people, based on race, ethnicity, national origin or sex. It was put on the ballot by the Legislature following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“These are part of a fight between political generations in California,” said Thad Kousser, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego.

California’s electorate has changed significantly since the laws were enacted, growing more racially and ethnically diverse and Democratic. Hispanics are now the largest single demographic group, though white homeowners tend to predominate among likely voters.

Republican registration in the state has dwindled to about 24%, and a Republican hasn’t carried the state in a presidential election since George H.W. Bush in 1988. The state’s newest voters, mostly Hispanics and Asians, tend to be liberal-minded. Sen. Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist, won the state’s Democratic presidential primary in March.

Proposition 13, which limits tax increases to 2% a year until a property is sold, has had enduring popularity in a state known for ever-increasing taxes. However, it also creates inequities and similar properties can have vastly different tax bills, depending on when they were purchased.

Supporters argue the law has become a massive giveaway for big companies — the change would apply to businesses with $3 million or more worth of commercial property.

If approved, residential property and home-based businesses would remain sheltered under the 1978 rules. Opponents say the increased taxes would raise costs for small businesses that rent those properties, and they see the proposal as an stalking horse that will lead to an effort to roll back protections on homeowners.

Meddling with Proposition 13 has long been known as the third rail in state politics and the election will test if that rail is “still electrified” with voters far different from those who supported it in the 1970s, said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

Despite the reshaped electorate, polls have indicated the effort to overturn the ban on racial and ethnic preferences is struggling to gain sufficient voter support to win. The U.S. Supreme Court has long outlawed racial quotas, but it has ruled that universities may use tailored programs to promote diversity.

Supporters say a change is needed to dismantle structural racism and sexism, and backers include Gov. Gavin Newsom and Kamala Harris, California’s first Black U.S. senator and the Democratic vice presidential nominee. Asians have disproportionately high representation on many college campuses and there is strong opposition among some in that group who fear it will cut those numbers.

The state’s direction on crime issues also is in play.

At a time when crime has been ticking up in Los Angeles and elsewhere, voters will consider if the state has grown too lenient in criminal justice, after initiatives lowered penalties for drug and property crimes in 2014 and allowed the earlier parole of most felons in 2016.

Proposition 20 would roll back some of those changes, and a provision would allow repeated thefts of property worth $250 or more to be prosecuted as felonies, after business owners complained thieves are stealing with impunity since the punishment was reduced to a misdemeanor.

Also, Proposition 25 could overturn a 2018 law that eliminates cash bail.

The election arrives in anxious, unsteady times.

Joe Biden is expected to trounce President Donald Trump in the state Trump lost to Hillary Clinton by over 4 million votes in 2016. Republicans are trying to claw back at least some of seven U.S. House seats the party lost to Democrats in 2018. Republicans now hold only seven of California’s 53 House seats.

Other ballot proposals will also send signals about the political direction of the state, including Proposition 22, which is asking voters to decide if Uber, Lyft and other app-based drivers should remain independent contractors, or be eligible for the benefits that come with being company employees. There has been record-pace spending so far — about $220 million and climbing — in the fight between the titans of the so-called gig economy and labor unions, including the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Recent polling by the Public Policy Institute of California pointed to an unsettled electorate. Likely voters were about equally divided over whether the state was headed in the right direction – and most felt the nation was headed the wrong way. The poll also found most Californians believe the state is cleaved by economic division.

Former state Republican Party Chairman Ron Nehring said if either affirmative action or tax hikes fail, it would confound easy stereotypes about the state and its politics.

The outcome could show “the state has not moved in a way that easily fits into anyone’s cookie-cutter perspective,” Nehring said.

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