(Photo courtesy of Bike-R on Flickr, via EdSource)

You don’t have to be superstitious to fear the number 13. Both supporters and opponents of a proposed $15 billion school and college construction bond headed for the March 2020 state ballot are somewhat apprehensive now that the Secretary of State has designated it Proposition 13.

Four decades after state voters slashed property taxes and set a cap on property tax increases by passing the infamous Prop. 13, the number continues to conjure strong feelings pro and con among California voters, even though many weren’t old enough to vote at the time. Whether that association will affect their view of a new bond measure is an X factor those involved in the election hadn’t anticipated.

“Anything but,” confided a legislative staffer when asked if the person would have preferred a number other than 13.

“The first thing I thought was, ‘Are they messing with our heads a little bit?’ ” said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, an anti-tax organization named after the man who led the Prop. 13 campaign.

Actually, no. It’s the luck of the draw under a 30-year-old state law, assured a spokesman from the Secretary of State’s Office. The Legislature decided that the numbering process for propositions should begin again every 10 years, starting in 1998. In 2018, the first year under the latest cycle, there were 12 propositions on the ballot. Since the law dictates that bond measures appear first on the ballot, that put the school and college construction bond — the only bond on the upcoming March ballot — next in line.

Prop. 13 is Assembly Bill 48. It would allocate $9 billion for preschool to K-12, with most of it providing matching funding for school districts’ renovation projects, $1 billion for charter school and career technical facilities plus $6 billion split equally among community colleges, California State University and the University of California. The Legislature passed it in September after the Department of Finance and Gov. Gavin Newsom’s staff negotiated a new K-12 distribution formula for funding that gives priority and a bigger share of money to small districts needing financial help and low-income, low-property-wealth districts that had been shut out of the process under past bonds.

There will be money dedicated to districts with pressing facilities needs, including removing lead in water and reducing seismic hazards. The state has run out of matching money for school facilities projects from the last bond, $9 billion for K-12 schools and community colleges, approved in 2016.

Coupal said the Howard Jarvis association will oppose the bond for several reasons. One is that, with a budget surplus, the state should be funding facilities on a pay-as-you-go-basis, instead of accumulating more debt. As for number 13, Coupal doesn’t know whether it will work for or against the bond. Though it will be clearly labeled as a school construction bond, with arguments pro and con, it’s possible that some tax opponents may automatically vote for it, he said.

“We will get calls from citizens saying there is something sneaky here,” he said. “It speaks to the need to make things clear” by using parenthesis when referring to Prop. 13 (1978) or Prop. 13 (2020).

Adding to the potential confusion is that an effort to amend the original Prop. 13 with a “split-roll” tax will be fighting for voters’ attention next year. Proponents want to raise $11 billion by changing the rules on revaluating business and commercial property while leaving tax limits on homes intact. In coming months, the Schools and Communities First coalition will be gathering the nearly 1 million signatures it will need to put its initiative on the November ballot; ads opposing it by Coupal’s organization and the business community already have hit the airwaves.

“Confusion is the friend of the ‘no’ vote,” said Kevin Gordon, president of Capitol Advisors Group, an education consulting company based in Sacramento and a supporter of the bond. “But you have to play the hand you’re dealt.”

There may be nothing to worry about. The two Prop. 13s on the ballot since the 1998 law also passed easily. One was a $2 billion water bond in 2000; the other, much in the spirit of Prop. 13 (1978), was a constitutional amendment in 2010 prohibiting reassessing buildings that were seismically retrofitted. And past state school construction bonds have drawn strong support. Since 1998, voters have passed five, including Prop. 58 in 2016, which then-Gov. Jerry Brown opposed.

Coupal said that he’d be willing to write a joint letter with supporters of the bond asking Secretary of State Alex Padilla to reassign another number to avoid voter confusion.

But if the coalition of school districts, construction industry interests and higher education organizations behind AB 48 think that’s a good idea, they’re not saying.

“Hopefully after March a new generation will associate Prop. 13 with investing billions to improve safety for California’s schools and students,” Dan Newman, a spokesman for the campaign to pass the bond, wrote in an email.

Story originally published by EdSource.