Analysis: Money Is No Object as the California Teachers Association Tries to Eke Out a Property Tax Ballot Victory

Mike Antonucci’s Union Report is typically published on Wednesdays. You can access the full archive on their website.

The National Education Association (NEA) has allocated a staggering $23 million towards supporting Joe Biden’s presidential campaign and ensuring Democratic control of both houses of Congress. However, it may come as a surprise that a single NEA affiliate, namely the California Teachers Association (CTA), could potentially exceed that amount with just one ballot initiative.

This ballot initiative, known as Proposition 15, aims to significantly modify the provisions of Proposition 13, a groundbreaking property tax limitation measure that was approved by voters in California in 1978. Proposition 15 would protect residential homeowners under Prop 13 but eliminate these protections for numerous commercial properties. This would result in what is commonly referred to as a split-roll property tax, where taxes for commercial properties would considerably increase, generating an estimated $11 billion in revenue for various state programs, including public education.

CTA has been striving to include a split-roll measure on the state ballot since 2004, but their previous attempts have either been withdrawn or failed to gather sufficient signatures. Even the current iteration of the initiative was initially planned for the November 2018 ballot but had to be withdrawn and rewritten. Consequently, the campaign had to collect 1 million new signatures to qualify for this year’s ballot.

Although the union has spent millions over the years without achieving any concrete results, this time they are going all-in. As of mid-October, CTA has already disbursed $17.8 million for the Prop 15 campaign. In addition, they have been assisted by contributions totaling $13.2 million from various state affiliates of the Service Employees International Union, which represents numerous state workers. The largest additional contributor is the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative Advocacy, established by Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, with a contribution of $10.9 million.

CTA’s spending is made possible through its Initiative Fund, to which each member contributes an annual due of $36. This generates almost $10 million per year, which can be carried over if not utilized. The union’s state council has authorized a total spending limit of $23.7 million on ballot initiatives for this election cycle. Even if all of this amount is spent, the fund would still have approximately $10 million remaining.

Moreover, CTA has additional sources of funding. The National Education Association recently provided a $4.5 million donation to CTA specifically for the Prop 15 campaign. This means that teachers from various states, including Mississippi and South Dakota, are contributing dues money to support a property tax increase in California.

The American Federation of Teachers, along with its California affiliate, has also expended $2 million in support of Prop 15.

Despite this significant financial backing, the measure has not experienced substantial changes in its public opinion polling over the years. Recent survey results from the Public Policy Institute of California and the Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies indicate that Prop 15 enjoys 49 percent support, a range that has remained relatively constant since March 2018.

Traditionally, this lack of movement in polling numbers is unfavorable for California ballot initiatives, as the opposing side tends to gain momentum as Election Day approaches. However, it goes without saying that 2020 is far from being a typical year, and the unions may still manage to succeed.

CTA’s desire for a cash influx is understandable. Without a federal bailout, the union anticipates the possibility of laying off up to 50,000 teachers and support staff by February 2021. Meanwhile, active membership continues to decline, which could pose challenges for CTA to raise such significant campaign funds in the future. Nevertheless, a problem arises.

The provisions of Prop 15 would not take effect immediately, and it would only contribute a maximum of $4.6 billion to the state’s education budget. California’s education expenditure has increased by over $33 billion since 2012, even as enrollment has declined. Furthermore, enrollment was projected to continue decreasing even before the COVID-19 crisis.

While the additional revenue would certainly be welcomed, it would have far from a transformative impact on CTA and other public employee unions. What Prop 15 would accomplish is the demonstration that a targeted property tax increase can garner support. I suspect that a proposal for a residential property tax hike, but limited to mansions and the super-wealthy, may soon follow. From there, it’s a slippery slope towards reaching New Jersey’s property tax levels.

A defeat would undeniably disappoint CTA and its allies, but in reality, it wouldn’t be a major setback. No one would face repercussions for this miscalculation, and no one would be reprimanded for repeatedly spending tens of millions of dollars in dues money on unsuccessful endeavors. Furthermore, next year, an additional $10 million would be added to the initiative fund for any future efforts. Regardless of what happens in other parts of the country, the cycle in California will persist.

Disclosure: The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative provides financial support to .

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  • marcosnguyen

    Marcos Nguyen is a 29-year-old blogger and teacher from Houston, Texas. He is a graduate of the University of Houston, where he studied education and psychology. Marcos has been blogging since 2009, and he specializes in writing about education and parenting. He currently teaches middle school social studies and language arts.