Click photo to enlarge
California State Senator Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, holds a press conference at the Cow Palace in Daly City, Calif. Friday, April 17, 2009. (John Green/Staff)

What was once believed unthinkable is now a possibility. Could 2013 be the year that the iconic Proposition 13 is revised? For 34 years, serious discussion by elected officials about Proposition 13 revision has been almost nonexistent.

A Field Poll last September revealed voters continue to support Proposition 13 by a margin of 63 percent to 29 percent. But there are three parts to it and the staunch "support" is only for one of the three.

The portion that most people associate with Proposition 13 is the one limiting annual increases in property taxes.

In 1978, when voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 13, property taxes were exploding. For those on fixed incomes, each reassessment stoked fear of being driven out of their homes. Those who benefit from this aspect of Proposition 13 today are not the majority of Californians. But Proposition 13 did more than place a cap on property taxes.

It also established a two-thirds requirement for the Legislature to increase taxes, and it allowed commercial buildings and landowners to take advantage of a loophole that allows their property taxes to be reassessed only when a new owner acquires more than a 50 percent stake.

This loophole has left schools and local governments struggling to pay for basic needs. Some estimates offer that closing the loophole would generate more than $9 billion for local governments statewide.

Last week, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, said he plans to introduce legislation that would remove loopholes for commercial property that corporations have enjoyed for more than three decades.

"Prop. 13 is not the untouchable third-rail anymore," Ammiano said in a statement. "It's more like the bad guy with the mustache who has tied California to the rails with the fiscal train wreck coming."

Moreover, state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, has also proposed changing Proposition 13. He introduced a constitutional amendment that would allow local parcel taxes for schools to pass with 55 percent of the vote, instead of the two-thirds currently required.

The obvious concern would be that changes to the commercial property loophole would further drive business out of California.

But the threat of a mass business exodus will certainly be the argument made by corporations that will undoubtedly spends tens of millions in a public-relations campaign.

Is it possible to close corporate loopholes without forcing individuals on fixed incomes to move? Should Proposition 13 remain in its present form, starving the state's physical and social infrastructure? Can these questions be answered without the emotion that does not allow them to be heard in the proper context?

It does feel that we've reached the point where elected officials can have a judicious conversation about changes to Proposition 13 without committing political hara-kiri.

Whenever I've written in the past about Proposition 13, I have been bombarded by email, especially from seniors who state (rightly so) that Proposition 13 kept them in their homes.

But the reasons voters passed Proposition 13 in 1978 are not the reasons to close corporate loopholes today.

Contact Byron Williams at 510-208-6417 or byron@byronspeaks.com.