The Politics of Old Folks vs. Kids

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I haven't written about any of the TV ads in the Republican gubernatorial primary so far because, well, they've all been pretty predictable: my opponent is liberal, my opponent is untrustworthy, yada yada. But an ad released this morning caught my eye as meriting a brief discussion.

The ad, from front-runner Meg Whitman, hones in on the Republican touchstone of tax increases and targets the financial fears of senior citizens, while carefully not saying what supposedly threatens those older folks: kids.

That's the ad, and it seems to be saying that Steve Poizner doesn't like senior citizens. "Poizner, who campaigned to raise property taxes, even for retirees!" the narrator of the ad says in an ominous baritone.

You wouldn't know it by the ad, but what's being talked about is Proposition 39, a 2000 ballot measure that lowered the vote threshold for passage of local school bonds from two-thirds to 55%. Prop 39 was supported by Poizner, approved by 53.4% of the voters, and apparently has been used since that time to help build new school facilities across the state.

As you can see, Team Whitman takes a pass on talking about schools and, instead, focuses on the part of Prop 39 that plays into their narrative of calling Poizner a 'liberal': its potential impact on property taxes and the fixed incomes of older property owners... thus nuzzling up to the holy grail of California politics, Proposition 13.

Give Team Whitman points for being clever. The nonpartisan ballot analysis of Prop 39 says that in addition to the measure making it easier to approve school bonds, it also allows local property taxes to "exceed the current 1% limit in order to repay the bonds." That 1% limit is at the heart of Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann's 1978 anti-tax manifesto. Given that, and Poizner's at-the-time support, the ad relies on several bits of information that are hard to deny.

But... and this is an important 'but'... the ad doesn't explain what the evil ogre is that threatens the sweet senior citizens pictured.


First, keep in mind that Prop 39 had some broad bipartisan support, including former Gov. Pete Wilson; in fact, the ballot argument in support of Prop 39 was signed by Allan Zaremberg, the president of the California Chamber of Commerce.

The reason for that support may have been several restrictions included in both Prop 39 and a related law passed by the Legislature to seemingly keep the change from resulting in taxes run amok. The ballot analysis from the Legislative Analyst's Office says that Prop 39 requires that bond funds be limited to specific school needs certified by the local school board, that annual audits be done of the spending, and that a supermajority of the school board must approve placing the bond measure on the local ballot.

And perhaps the most salient limitation on Prop 39 school bonds: that the tax rate levied to pay back the bond in any single measure be no more than $60 per $100,000 of taxable property value (less if the bond is for a community college or small school district). There was no such restriction on tax rates before Prop 39, said the LAO analysis.

It's true that ardent defenders of Prop 13 were just as opposed to Prop 39 then as they are now (with the most prominent now a supporter of Whitman). And the Whitman ad relies on a short 243 word story from The Sacramento Bee that seems reasonable in its substantiation of the statewide cost (principal plus interest) of Prop 39 bonds since 2000 -- $40 billion.

But is it fair to imply that Prop 39 has forced people to lose their homes because of outrageous property tax hikes, a fear that was at the heart of the 1978 campaign that led to passage of Prop 13? Furthermore, is it fair to imply that property tax increases approved by voters to fund school construction are synonymous with local tax assessors raising property taxes in the 1970s without any formal way for the public to stop them (again part of the Prop 13 campaign)?

And, back to the original premise of this analysis, is it fair to say that improvements in schools -- funded by long-term bonds -- is a threat to the lives and homes of senior citizens?

Team Whitman knows, like everyone involved in California politics, that the state's voters hate taxes. But everyone also knows that polls show voters love schools. A thoughtful analysis of the legacy of Prop 39 might shed some light on which one of these preferences is winning out.

But for now, the Whitman camp is going to make this about senior citizens. As one of the candidate's top strategists, Rob Stutzman, wrote on his Twitter page this morning: "New ad, tell your grandma."

1:26 pm UPDATE: As if the above wasn't proof enough that the goal of this ad is to influence older voters, take this comment made today in a reporter conference call by Whitman's top strategist, Mike Murphy: "There's a whole lot of seniors voting in a Republican primary."

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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