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Five Propositions on June Ballot Present a Mixed Bag : Times urges 'no' votes on Props. 175 and 176; 'yes' on 177, 178 and 179

May 17, 1994

On Tuesday, June 7, Californians will be asked to vote on five statewide propositions. The Times makes the following recommendations on these measures.

PROPOSITION 175: NO. Since 1973, Californians who rent their principal residence have been able to gain a small measure of financial relief through the Renter's Income Tax Credit. For married couples, single parents and surviving spouses, it has meant that $120 could be deducted from their state income tax liability. For individuals, the figure was $60. The state's disastrous recession changed all that, causing the credit to be suspended until 1995.

The Legislature and the governor now have--and need--flexibility in tough fiscal times. That is precisely what makes Proposition 175 a bad idea. It would embed the renter's tax credit in stone through a constitutional amendment, tying the hands of elected officials by placing yet another limit on dealing with future budget deficits. It would require a two-thirds vote of the people before the credit could be suspended, scaled back or eliminated in the future. That is neither prudent nor necessary.

PROPOSITION 176: NO. Similarly, Proposition 176 would amend the Constitution to exempt qualifying nonprofit organizations from locally imposed business license taxes or fees based on income or gross receipts. Nonprofit organizations in California already are exempt from state and federal taxes. Moreover, we have found no concrete examples of California cities or counties that have actually levied business taxes on nonprofit organizations.

Do we need to amend the Constitution to protect against a danger that does not appear to exist? We don't think so, and oppose Proposition 176.

PROPOSITION 177: YES. Anyone who has used a wheelchair or accompanied a wheelchair user can testify to the bitter frustration posed by businesses made unreachable by even a few stairsteps. The Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 was a giant step toward reducing these barriers; the federal law requires owners of commercial properties that are open to the public to make improvements to accommodate disabled individuals. Proposition 177 would give California business owners an important helping hand in complying.

Usually, when a property is improved, the property's valuation is increased by the amount of the improvement and property taxes go up accordingly. Proposition 177 would amend the state Constitution to exempt any structural modifications to commercial facilities made after June 7, 1994, to improve access for and use by disabled people. It's unfortunate that it takes a constitutional amendment to facilitate these worthy improvements, but any modification of the Proposition 13 tax limitations that voters passed in 1978 requires a two-thirds popular vote. The exemption is also similar to tax breaks provided for public safety improvements such as sprinkler systems and disabled-access improvements to private homes.

This measure could eventually cost the state up to $10 million a year in lost tax revenues. However, this is revenue that would have been generated without Proposition 177, not a reduction in existing revenue. Moreover, the exemption expires upon the sale of a property; reappraisal would be at full market value.

PROPOSITION 178: YES. This measure is similar in purpose and operation to Proposition 177. California is now in the grip of yet another protracted water shortage. Proposition 178 would exempt new water conservation equipment installed on agricultural land from property tax reassessment until that land is sold.

Although many of the state's largest farmers have already installed such equipment, smaller farmers have felt themselves too financially pinched to do so. Yet fostering water conservation is in the interest of every Californian. That's why we support this measure.

PROPOSITION 179: YES. Few in California will object if the minimum prison sentence for second-degree murder resulting from a "drive-by" shooting is raised from 15 to 20 years. Equally few honestly expect the number of these shootings to drop because of any such change in sentencing. (The maximum sentence was and will remain life in prison; parole was and will remain possible.)

More voters may find themselves asking, "Why are you coming to me about this?" The answer to that question points up again the folly of implanting measures that should be statutory law--passed by and subject to revision by the Legislature--in the Constitution, where revision requires a direct vote of the people.

Thus the Briggs Amendment, passed by the voters in 1978, made restoration of the death penalty and other specified penalties a part of the state's Constitution. The Briggs changes could have been made by the Legislature. But because they were passed as a constitutional amendment, they can be changed only by further amendment. Thus we endorse Proposition 179.

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