By Ken Monroe, FBA Chairman and president of Holt of California
The following commentary was posted on Fox & Hounds on October 21, 2020
Proposition 15, the split-roll property tax measure on the November ballot, would seriously affect family businesses throughout the state by raising taxes on commercial property by an estimated $11.5 billion a year. As the owners of family-owned Holt of California and chairman of the Family Business Association of California, I know how hard it will impact our companies.
The measure’s proponents were arguing that the state faced a financial crisis and needed to double or even triple taxes on businesses large and small even before the COVID-caused recession hit and the economy was doing well.
In fact, this supposed financial crisis is not new and it’s never been solved to the satisfaction of public employee unions and their supporters in Sacramento despite a long line of tax increases.
Proposition 98 in 1988 (mandatory education spending) wasn’t enough, so then there was Proposition 30 in 2012 (“temporary” taxes to fund state programs). But that wasn’t enough, either, so along came Proposition 55 in 2018 (which made those “temporary” taxes permanent). But even that wasn’t enough, so now comes Proposition 15. Will this be the end? No, and if it passes and causes property taxes for commercial property to skyrocket, you can be sure that a push to increase residential property taxes won’t be far behind.
So what crisis are we facing? Proponents of Proposition 15 say they want to provide a better education for our children. But the funds would really be used to bridge the gap between available funds and what’s needed to pay for government employees’ generous retirement benefits. Only about 30% of the new taxes would go to schools – and could be used for pension obligations. The rest would go to state and local governments, which could spend the money however they choose.
A large part would undoubtedly be spent to backfill that multi-billion dollar unfunded pension liability. Because retirement spending has grown faster than revenues, funding for many government programs have grown more slowly. Absent reform, retirement spending will continue to grow faster than revenues even after the recession ends.
Before we add another tax to California family businesses, let’s see structural retirement spending reforms.
Proposition 15 would hit almost every business hard. Proponents say it exempts agricultural land, but it would increase taxes on improvements to farmland such as barns, buildings, processing areas and even some of the crops grown. They also say it would exempt small business, but that’s simply not true. The triple-net leases commonly used to rent stores and offices require tenants to pay real estate tax, building insurance and maintenance cost increases. If property taxes go up, so does the businesses’ rent.
If Proposition 15 passes, most family businesses will be forced to reassess our budgets and find ways to pay the higher taxes. But family businesses can’t simply wave a magic wand and increase sales or raise prices to cover those increases, so there will be less money available for employee raises and company growth. We will have to restructure our businesses to survive and compete, unlike the public employee unions that will not budge when it comes to reforms.
California businesses already have the highest tax bills in the country and imposing a massive tax increase like this means many long-time family businesses will not just think about leaving the state, they will do so.
And that would cause the public employee unions to look for other revenue sources to “solve” the Never-Ending Financial Crisis. Please vote no on Proposition 15 and let family business grow and provide the jobs California needs to expand the economic good for all.