California Lawmakers Propose Property Tax Reform for Commercial and Industrial Properties

California lawmakers recently introduced SCA 5, a new proposal of an old idea to create a “split-roll” property tax.  The proposed constitutional amendment would remove Proposition 13’s limits on property taxes for commercial and industrial properties. The measure would allow for yearly reassessment of those properties to ensure their property taxes reflect current market value, as opposed to only reassessing a property when it changes ownership.  Protections for residential and agricultural property assessments would remain in place.

Voters approved Proposition 13 in 1978 in reaction to skyrocketing property taxes on homes and commercial properties.  The landmark measure restricted the yearly increase in property taxes and only allowed reassessment when the property changed ownership.

SCA 5 faces numerous tough hurdles before it could be enacted.  As a constitutional amendment, passage of the bill requires a two-thirds vote in both the Senate and Assembly, followed by a vote of the people in the 2016 election.  SCA 5’s first test will be in the Senate Government and Finance Committee, which has not set a hearing date yet, but it could be as early as next month.

WHAT SCA 5 DOES

The proposal includes a complicated multi-step phase-in process for the new yearly reassessments.  Beginning in fiscal year 2018-19, only the half of commercial properties with the oldest assessments would be re-assed.  The new tax rates for these properties would have a three year phase-in period.  They would pay only one-third of the increase in the first year, followed by two-thirds in the second year, and finally paying the full taxes based on the new assessment in the third year.  Beginning in fiscal year 2019-2020, the second half of properties would be reassessed.  They would pay 50% of the tax increase in the first year, and the full increase in the second year.

FY 18-19 FY 19-20 FY 20-21
Oldest half of assessments 1/3 of increase 2/3 of increase Full increase
Newest half of assessments 1/2 of increase Full increase

In an attempt to make the measure more palatable, the authors of SCA 5 carved out protections for smaller businesses.  Businesses that own their own property worth less than $3 million and operate on that property will have a five year phase-in of the new rates.  Additionally, the proposal exempts business personal property up to $500,000.  The authors say this credit will take 90% of businesses off of the personal property tax roll.

SUPPORT AND OPPOSITION

Proposition 13 reform and the split-roll proposal are old issues that draw predictable support and opposition.  Although most groups have not had time to take formal positions on SCA 5, some business groups, like the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, have already voiced their strong opposition to any changes to the property tax rate.

The authors of SCA 5, Senators Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley) and Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), are supported by the Make it Fair campaign, a coalition of unions and liberal activists who are the primary backers of the bill.  In the likely event that SCA 5 does not pass, the Make it Fair campaign is exploring the option of collecting the necessary signatures to place the measure directly on the November 2016 ballot.

Proposition 13 has long been considered the third rail of California politics. Most Californians strongly support this law that keeps their property taxes low in a state that already has high tax rates.  In light of this, liberal activists have long viewed the split-roll proposal as a half measure that Californians might support.  Polls as recent as 2014 have shown support as high as 62% of voters for a hypothetical split-roll proposal like SCA 5.  However, a new poll published in May by the Public Policy Institute of California found that support for the split-roll had dropped significantly down to 50% of Californians, with 44% opposed the idea.

THE MONEY

Proponents of SCA 5 say the proposal would raise $9 billion a year in revenues for local governments.  The bill would distribute this money based on the current allocation formulas to cities, counties, and special districts.  Local communities could decide how best to reinvest the money in local services like public safety, parks, mental health, and infrastructure.  To comply with complicated funding formulas, the bill funnels the money allocated for schools through a special fund and then to local school districts.  Some of the money would be used to reimburse local assessors for their increased costs, to reimburse the state for lost revenue, and to create new online transparency and accountability for local governments receiving the new funds.

BOTTOM LINE

With numerous hurdles and strong opposition still on the horizon, SCA 5’s fate is far from certain.  Most people consider the bill to be a longshot, but it represents the most concerted effort by liberals to amend Prop 13.  Just last year, a much more modest bill targeted at curbing abuses was defeated in the Senate after passing the Assembly. SCA 5 will likely undergo a number of changes as it works its way through Sacramento.  As it does we will be keeping an eye on it and how it could affect your business.