November 2020: Propositions

Here are my current thoughts on the propositions on the November 2020 ballot.

You can also read my thoughts on candidates, or see a cheat sheet summary.

State-wide propositions

No on 14 (stem cell research bonds)

This one’s tough for me.

In 2004, Prop 71 used a bond to raise $3 billion for stem cell research grants. This money has run out, and this proposition essentially renews it by raising another $5.5 billion for stem cell research.

On the one hand, I’m generally a sucker for “raise taxes or sell bonds to fund something decent”, and stem cell research is something decent. But I’m more motivated to do so when the proposition comes from our elected government as opposed to a separate organization.

The claim that the original bonds were mostly important because the federal government under Bush was banning federal funding for stem cell research which is no longer the case is compelling. And a personal acquaintance who is a well-known stem cell researcher says to vote no on this as there are lots of other promising things to spend money on.

It’s close for me but I’m going for no.

YES!!! on 15 (fix prop 13 for commercial property)

Prop 13 (1978) is the worst set of laws on the books in California. Among other things, it prevents real estate from being reassessed until it is sold, meaning that long-term property owners can pay property taxes on 1970s-era assessments while their newer neighbors pay based on their recent purchase price. (It also capped property taxes at 1%, requires the legislature to have a 2/3 supermajority to pass state taxes, and required lots of local taxes to be voted on as propositions — a big part of why these ballots are so long). This law slashed local government funding and is the prime reason California has one of the nation’s worst public school systems.

This year’s Prop 15 is a chance to undo a tiny bit of Prop 13. Specifically, it taxes commercial properties (not residential!) worth over $3 million on their current property value, not their property value at purchase time. It does not affect residential property taxation, and does not change the 1% cap. It will make corporations that have owned property for decades pay taxes at the same level as their newer competitors across the street, and will raise $6-11 billion for local governments (school districts, cities, transit districts, etc) annually. It is, unsurprisingly, supported by most folks who you would expect to support a functional government, and opposed primarily by Republicans and organizations focused on not paying taxes. I found it a bit concerning to see the California NAACP on the no side, but a bit of research shows that the California NAACP seems to take a bunch of surprising positions on ballot measures which just happen to coincide with which proposition campaigns fund their president’s consulting firm.

California has long been held back by Prop 13. Let’s finally start to fix it.

Yes on 16 (un-ban affirmative action)

We have not solved racism. Until it was made illegal by Prop 209 in 1996, affirmative action allowed institutions such as the University of California to take race into account as one aspect of decision-making in pursuit of outcomes that better reflect our state’s diversity. While it would be great to live in a world where affirmative action is no longer needed, we continue to live in a white supremicist society and Prop 209 has been harmful to our attempts to improve that. Prop 16 would repeal Prop 209. Sounds good to me.

This made it to the ballot from the legislature from a 75-25 vote (no Democrats voted now). The only reason we have to vote on this at all instead of letting our legislature determine policy is that the current policy is locked into the California Constitution from Prop 209.

YES!!! on 17 (voting rights for parolees)

Felony disenfranchisement is one of the main methods of voter suppression in 2020. The choice of what is consider a felony vs a misdemeanor (or even not a crime, like wage theft) is relatively arbitrary as is the choice of where to focus law enforcement. One in 13 black adults have lost their right to vote due to felony disenfranchisement laws, compared to only 1 in 56 non-black adults.

In California, we ban people currently imprisoned for a felony from voting as well as those currently on parole. Prop 17 would provide voting rights to parolees (while still disenfranchising the incarcerated).

Ideally, we should join Maine and Vermont by allowing all adults to vote and completely dropping the system of felony disenfranchisement. Voting yes on 17 will let us join such radical leftist states like North Dakota, Indiana, and Ohio in only stripping voting rights from people currently in prison. It’s a step in the right direction. This proposition was placed on the ballot by 70% of the legislature.

Yes on 18 (17-year-olds voting in primaries)

This would allow 17-year-olds to vote in primary elections when they will be 18 by the general election, like in eighteen other states. This makes sense: anyone who can vote in a general election should be part of the process of determining who goes on the ballot.

The argument against goes like this: “I am the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and I broke California so that all local taxes need to be voted on via propositions. Some of these propositions are in primaries. So I don’t want 17-year-olds, who are more motivated to ensure that the government serves its citizens than greedy rich people like me, voting on those propositions.”

It’s kinda fair to point out that propositions in primary elections don’t have the same relationship to the general election that candidates do. But the solution to this would be to reduce the amount of our governing that happens via proposition, and perhaps to move all propositions to the general election (where they will be considered by a larger electorate). This is of course not what the opponents of this proposition are arguing for, because they are the reason we have to vote on all these taxes in the first place.

Yes on 19 (close one prop 13 loophole, open another)

OK, remember 1978’s Prop 13, from Prop 15 above? The awful law that destroyed funding for local governments by (unlike every other state) basing property taxes on the last purchase price rather than a current assessed value?

The basic operation of the Prop 13 property tax system is that taxes get based on the current value of the property when the property is sold. But later propositions have added two big loopholes to this, which allow taxes to be paid at the old low rate even after the property is transferred!

First, there’s an inheritance loophole. If you transfer your primary residence to your kids (or to your grandkids if their parents are dead), then they get to keep your old property tax assessment… even if they just rent it out. And this applies to any other property (residential or otherwise) that you transfer to them that is worth under a million dollars, and applies in part to more expensive property. I have some sympathy for “we can’t afford to move into the house my parents built because the property taxes just went up”, but not for “my parents owned ten rental properties and I need to inherit their business’ tax rate”.

Second, there’s a loophole for seniors, disabled folks, and disaster victims who are downsizing. If one of these folks moves within their county (or to another county which opts in to allowing this) to a home that’s not more expensive, they can keep paying taxes based on their old home’s old assessed value rather than a newly assessed value on their new home. They can do this once ever. This is vaguely reasonable too (at least in the context of Prop 13 existing in the first place) — old folks shouldn’t feel stuck in a big home because downsizing will raise their taxes. (You may remember this loophole from Prop 5 from 2018, which would have expanded it in a bunch of ways. I opposed that proposition and it failed.)

OK, so what does Prop 19 do? Prop 19 shrinks the inheritance loophole and expands the senior loophole.

It shrinks the inheritance loophole by making it only apply to a property that the kid (or grandkid) is going to use for their own primary home (or as a farm). Additionally, it only applies 100% to properties worth under a million dollars; for more expensive properties, the taxable value will go up (but not by as much as if the loophole didn’t exist at all). So this loophole stops meaning that you can inherit your parent’s landlord business without being reassessed, or inherit their home and just rent it out without being reassessed. I think this still captures the most helpful part of the loophole (making it easier to keep the house you grew up in) while still moving us inch by inch towards a post-Prop-13 world where neighbors with similar properties get taxed equally.

It expands the senior loophole by letting them use it three times instead of just once; by letting them upgrade to a more expensive home (their taxable value will increase by the difference in current value between two homes); and by letting them move anywhere in California. This is basically what Prop 5 two years ago (which I did not support) tried to do.

(There’s a weird thing where some of the money indirectly saved is dedicated to fire protection. While this is all about affecting the amount of property taxes directed to local governments, if this succeeds in sending more property tax money to school district, the state may have to spend less money on those districts; any savings from that gets allocated to fire prevention. Tying revenue directly to uses is something I don’t love but it’s how things work in California, I guess.)

I am not exactly excited about this proposition. I think the changes to the inheritance loophole are positive, and the changes to the senior loophole are negative. On the whole, I think it’s slightly positive.

More importantly for me, the path to the ballot was very different for this proposition than for 2018’s Prop 5. That time, it got on the ballot because the California Association of Realtors wrote it and got signatures for it. This one got here because the 70% of the legislature voted for it (only two Democrats voted no, though a reasonable number did not vote). When I don’t have a strong opinion about a legislatively initiated proposition with near-unanimous Democratic support, I err on the side of yes.

NO on 20!!! (more felonies, less parole)

After decades of using the proposition process to make criminal justice more harsh via tactics like the three strikes law, we’ve finally started to successfully pass propositions that reduce the prison-industrial complex, like 2014’s Prop 47 (which reduces many non-violent crimes to misdemeanors) and 2016’s Prop 57 (which makes more people eligible for parole).

Prop 20 is an attempt to roll back these improvements by making parole harder to access (among other things). It is funded by prison guard and cop unions (and, apparently, Safeway).

Especially in a time when Covid is ravaging our jails and prisons, rolling back these positive changes is not what we need. Vote no on 20.

Yes on 21 (allow more rent control)

This is a more limited version of the failed Prop 10 from 2018, so I’ll mostly borrow what I wrote then. That said, I no longer consider this to be a particularly difficult choice.

This reduces the power of all three aspects of Costa-Hawkins, the state law limiting how local governments can impose rent control.

Specifically, Costa-Hawkins bans:

Prop 21 will change each of these bits:

Nothing in Prop 21 requires local governments to enact rent control; it just gives them more options if they choose to.

I think the fixed date aspect of Costa-Hawkins is clearly problematic. That date was set 25 years ago and hasn’t changed. I understand that housing development can be challenging if rents on new buildings are strictly controlled, but if you can’t figure out how to turn a profit within 15 years then maybe you shouldn’t be a developer.

Rent control without vacancy control has the clear downside that it incentivizes landlords to evict tenants or, in localities with eviction control, make living in the building unbearable until tenants leave. There are downsides to vacancy control (if too strict it can make it unaffordable to maintain buildings) but we’ve had the experiment of vacancy decontrol for 25 years; I’d like to see us try it again.

The main argument against Prop 21 is that rent control allows local governments to prevent housing development by instituting strict rent control. But local governments have plenty of other ways (especially downzoning) to prevent development much more directly. (And frankly I’m getting less rah-rah about market-rate development by the year.) Even East Bay For Everyone (the East Bay YIMBY group) supports Prop 21. So I’ll vote yes on Prop 21.

NO!!! on 22 (let uber mis-classify employees)

Uber, Lyft, and other “gig economy” apps rake in money for their investors and tech employees by capitalizing on an ever-shifting pool of disempowered drivers doing the real work (and wearing out their cars). These companies insist that the people providing the actual labor are independent contractors rather than employees, allowing them to skirt labor laws like the minimum wage, paid sick leave, and health care benefits.

The legislature passed AB5, a bill that requires many employers to classify the people whose work is essential to their business as employees. This law was specifically aimed at companies like Uber and Lyft.

Now, AB5 isn’t perfect. It overreaches and affects industries that it’s not as appropriate for, like the performing arts (though performing artists sadly have bigger problems in 2020). The bill’s author, Lorena Gonzalez, has pledged to work to amend the law to avoid unintentional impacts like this, though I don’t know how well this has gone.

Prop 22 is the attempt by Uber, Lyft, Doordash, Instacart, and Postmates (among others) to overturn AB5… but just for them. Yes, somehow despite the fact that AB5 has gotten tons of bad press for how it may affect industries other than the gig economy companies, Uber et al has put forth a proposition that only overturns AB5 for app-based rideshare and delivery companies. So all the unintended consequences in other industries would carry on; just these apps would be exempted.

There’s a bit of a fig leaf around mandating some minimal benefits for drivers. But let’s be honest: any driver benefits in the law written by the companies are benefits that aren’t a big deal for them to offer, not serious concessions. And even some of these are actually writing anti-driver rules into law. For example, the wage guarantees only apply to time spent driving, not time waiting for riders. But the attractiveness of these services comes from the fact that there is always a huge pool of drivers on call waiting to take a job quickly. Why should this time not count as work time? Would you accept a minimum wage law that said retail workers don’t need to be paid for time when there’s no customer in the store?

Prop 22 can’t be amended by the legislature (without a near-impossible 7/8 vote), so whatever is in this would be locked into law forever.

I am sympathetic to the argument that AB5 hurts people who really do just want to use gig economy apps for a little bit of extra work here and there. (Of course, in an ideal world many of the things mandated by AB5 like support for health care wouldn’t be employment-linked in the first place. But we aren’t in that ideal world.) But at the end of the day, Uber drivers (whether part-time or full-time) have very little collective power, because the app companies work hard to make sure that drivers aren’t able to coordinate with each other in any direct way.

I’d be fine with going back to a pre-AB5 world where companies could treat their work force as contractors… if drivers had a voice at the table via collective bargaining. Let your drivers have a union, and the state won’t have to step in and make crude changes like AB5. But Prop 22 explicitly bans any organization from organizing drivers: it explicitly states that anything that would allow any entity to represent the interests of app-based drivers would be illegal unless another proposition passes allowing it.

But until then, let’s see how AB5 actually works in practice. (We don’t know yet because the companies have been refusing to start following the law.) If it truly is ruinous, it can be legislatively reversed later. Please vote no on Prop 22.

No on 23 (dialysis clinic changes)

So there’s an ongoing conflict between for-profit dialysis centers and the unions that are trying to help their employees organize. Somehow this turns into a series of union-sponsored propositions. I liked the last one of these, Prop 8 in 2018, which would have capped dialysis center profits if it had passed. This one adds a few regulations to dialysis centers: requires there to be an on-site physician (or another medical professional if there aren’t enough doctors in the area) at all times; prohibiting discrimination based on whether the patient has private or public insurance; requiring state approval before closing clinics; and some stuff around data collection.

The non-discrimination clause seems great. The others seem maybe fine I guess. Or maybe the physician part is overkill. I dunno. Newspaper editorial boards mostly don’t like it. Some organizations I respect (though don’t always agree with) like Bend the Arc and Indivisible SF are in favor?

Basically torn between “in a fight between the union and big business, choose the union” and “when a proposition could just be a normal law, vote no”. I’m going with the latter — this level of detailed health-care law should be worked out in the legislature, not given to voters as a big yes/no choice.

No on 24 (privacy law changes)

So this one guy, Alastair Mactaggart, was working to put a privacy-related proposition on the ballot in 2018. He negotiated with the legislature, and agreed to withdraw it when they passed a big privacy law (the CCPA).

Then he went and put this one on the 2020 ballot anyway. It extends the CCPA further, and locks it into place so only another proposition can amend it.

The actual contents are complex and technical. This is the sort of thing that absolutely needs to be amendable by the legislature. I’m not even interested in learning what the details here are: the process is bad enough to ensure my opposition. Opposition from the ACLU and LWV seals the deal for me.

Yes on 25 (keep law ending cash bail)

OK, so two years ago the legislature passed SB10, which would eliminate cash bail in California. The bail bond industry filed signatures to create a referendum. What this means is that the law didn’t take effect, and instead we get to vote on whether or not it takes effect. A yes vote makes SB10 take effect (eliminating cash bail); a no vote rolls it back.

Cash bail is an unfair system that traps the poor in jail while rich folks accused of the same crime get to go home, and the bail bond industry is predatory and creates no real societal value. I’m generally in favor of eliminating cash bail.

That said, SB10 was significantly changed in the process of getting passed, and many folks (like the ACLU) went from sponsoring SB10 to opposing it on its final vote, primarily due to concerns that increasing the discretionary power given to judges and algorithmic risk assessment tools will lead to the same sorts of discrimination as cash bail. We can do better than SB10.

That said, as far as I can tell many of those groups still support voting yes on SB10 (or have taken no position) rather than siding with the bail bond industry in rolling the entire thing back.

I do like that SB10 only applies the problematic parts (risk assessment) to felonies; it does seem like SB10/Prop 25 is a clear improvement in how we treat people accused of misdemeanors.

I don’t know how realistic it is to be optimistic that SB10 will be amended to improve its problems, but I do suspect that if Prop 25 fails, California won’t try eliminating cash bail again for a long time. (Though maybe that’s not true, as there is an in-process lawsuit that may make the old system illegal.) So I’m voting yes, though it’s the proposition I’m most torn about.

Alameda County propositions

Unlike Berkeley, the county does not appear to have information on their propositions available online as of October 1st, and I am not even sure that the two propositions listed below are the only non-state non-Berkeley propositions on the ballot.

Yes on V (continue unincorporated area utility tax)

This extends an existing utility tax (similar to the tax in HH) that would otherwise expire in 2021. This only affects unincorporated areas of the county but must be voted on by the whole county. It seems to be generally supported by reasonable folks and opposed by “taxpayers association” types. In an ideal world I would not be voting on a tax that I don’t have to pay (or honestly, nobody should need to vote on this tax at all), but given that it’s here, “continue expiring tax” is an easy yes for me.

Yes on W (sales tax for housing/homelessness)

This is a 0.5% sales tax that will provide funding for housing and homelessness related issues. I believe it is to some degree a reaction to expected reduced tax revenue due to Covid. It is supported by most local leaders and groups; the argument against is a typical “taxpayers association” anti-tax rant. Sales taxes are regressive, but Prop 13 prevents counties from raising property taxes above 1%, so it’s the tool we have available. I’m voting yes.

Berkeley propositions

Berkeley helpfully has a site with all of its proposition text and arguments.

I am currently planning to vote yes on all 8 Berkeley-specific propositions.

Yes on FF (fire/emergency tax)

I object to the Prop 13 requirement that all local taxes require voter approval and generally believe in supporting any tax that City Council unanimously puts on the ballot. While I certainly have my concerns about some of what City Council does, I do not believe the repetitive arguments that my city’s anti-tax zealots put forth on every single tax proposition. The causes supported by this tax seem reasonable and the amount isn’t high. The argument against this tax makes the highly misleading claim that this will “double” taxes; while perhaps it will double the part of our square-footage-based taxes that pays for fire and paramedics, that’s not the same as doubling taxes overall! For my home I believe this will increase my taxes by 2%.

Yes on GG (uber tax)

As described in FF, I generally vote for taxes that City Council unanimously supported (Davila abstained from this one but that’s close enough), though I do think a little more carefully when it’s not just a simple property tax. I did occasionally use Lyft before covid, but believe it’s appropriate to tax Lyft and Uber to support local governments, as Chicago does and Oakland tried to. Fifty cents seems like a fine amount.

Yes on HH (utility tax)

Third tax in a row supported by a unanimous City Council and opposed only by the same gang of anti-taxers. This one raises taxes that we pay on our gas and electric bills, which are a percentage of the bill cost (so conserving energy can help you pay less of this tax). It also exempts low-income folks in two programs that help pay utility bills from the entire tax (not just the new part!). I probably would have voted for it even without the second part, but making this tax less regressive seems like a positive change in and of itself. So yes!

Yes on II (police accountability)

This proposition replaces the Police Review Commission with a Police Accountability Board. It was placed on the ballot by a unanimous City Council, and apparently was part of a collaboration between the City Council, the existing Police Review Commission, and the police department. At least according to the argument in favor, it expands the review powers of the organization, doing things like extending the deadline for filing complaints, requiring officers to testify, etc. It does appear that the only action it can take are “recommendations”; if the BPD disagrees with the Board’s determination, the City Manager makes the final choice. There are no official arguments against this proposition and it is supported by groups like the Berkeley ACLU and NAACP. While I can’t say I fully understand the details of how the new Board will be different from the old Commission, it sounds good to me.

Yes on JJ (mayor and council pay)

Berkeley City Council members currently receive a salary of $38K and the Mayor receives a salary of $61K. This proposition would change the formula to one that currently results in $67K for Council members and $107K for the Mayor. With the current cost of living in Berkeley, it is challenging for our elected officials to treat their office as a full time job unless their family has another source of income or they are just wealthy. I do believe that paying elected officials well can allow for a more diverse (and slightly less bribeable!) government as well as letting them focus on their office. So I am planning to vote yes on this.

I would be even more excited to vote for this if it had a delayed start date (say, taking effect in 2 years after the next local election) to make it more clear that this is thinking about the future Council composition, not just the folks who voted to put it on the ballot. But it’s still generally a good idea.

Yes on KK (update city charter)

KK seems to be a bunch of mostly technical amendments to the City Charter: gender-neutral language (yay!), changing who can be on a commission to be inclusive of non-citizens (which is also required by state law), defining what the City Attorney does more clearly, etc. It would no longer require firefighters to live within 40 miles of Berkeley, which is something that I don’t have strong opinions about. (I do think it’s better when cops live where they work, but I’m not sure the same concerns apply to firefighters.) It seems that the most contentious part is the power of hiring and firing the City Attorney from the appointed City Manager to the City Council (though the charter was previously unclear on how this should work); if you think it’s problematic for the City Attorney to have to answer directly to the City Council then maybe don’t vote for this. The City Council voted unanimously for this. Sounds fine.

YES on LL (let us spend our budget)

Because the California constitution has been mangled by greedy anti-tax anti-civilization assholes, every city needs to pass this ballot measure every 4 years in order to actually use tax money that has already been voted on. All it does is say “Those taxes you’re paying? We’re allowed to spend that money even though it’s more than our budget was in 1986”. If this fails, we’ll still be paying the same taxes but the city will be forced to sit on part of the money for no good reason. (This answer copied from 2016’s V1 and I assume I’ll write it again in 2024, assuming we still have a democracy then.)

(The only positive thing about this proposition is that I see Orlando Martinez is one of the few people who think we should vote against it, which means I don’t even have to bother to research his City Council candidacy.)

Yes on MM (more rent control)

Of the 8 Berkeley propositions, this one requires the most thought for me. (I believe it’s the only one put on the ballot by a City Council vote where any Council member voted no.) It does three different things:

As somebody who generally supports rent control, these all seem basically reasonable.

An eviction moratorium does not actually help tenants if they will be evicted as soon as the moratorium ends for the same missed payments that they couldn’t pay before (vs being evicted for continued missed payments post-moratorium or for other cause, which is not affected by this proposition). Of course in an ideal world, landlords would also be able to obtain similar mortgage relief, and that is the case for the current state eviction moratorium.

Getting more information about rentals in the city seems like it would be a largely positive change.

And if you have multiple ADUs, or an ADU next to an apartment building, it does seem like this “ADU” should just be treated more like an apartment rather than a special case.