By Jamie Johansson
Farmers and ranchers take for granted the need to work hard all the way through the end of the season—and that's what we'll need to do to defeat the property tax increase on the November ballot, Proposition 15.
In the days leading up to the election, you can expect to see ads, mailers and other materials claiming the initiative would exempt agriculture from increased taxes under its split-roll scheme. Don't believe it.
If you haven't voted yet, you may just now be turning your attention to the statewide measures on the November ballot. Proposition 15 would end longstanding property tax law, established under Proposition 13 in 1978, and allow local jurisdictions to reassess commercial and business properties at least every three years.
California's top agricultural organizations are united in strong opposition to Proposition 15 for a simple reason: It exposes a wide range of agricultural property to steep property tax increases at the worst possible time.
But if you've heard from the initiative's supporters, you might say, "Wait—doesn't Prop 15 exempt agriculture?" The simple answer is no.
The more complex answer—as there always seems to be with ballot measures—is that the special interests behind Proposition 15 exempted agricultural land, but failed to exempt other agricultural properties classified as "fixtures and improvements."
That may sound like a mere technicality—but under California tax law, "fixtures and improvements" includes almost everything on a farm but the dirt, such as dairies, barns, irrigation systems, processing plants, wineries, even mature fruit trees and grapevines.
For many farms, these fixtures and improvements have been around for years or even decades. So when Proposition 15 reassesses them at current market value for property tax purposes, it will expose many farmers to massive tax hikes.
Don't take my word for it; check out the measure itself. You'll see it only mentions agricultural land.
You could also ask the county assessors who must assess property for tax purposes.
As Stanislaus County Assessor Don Gaekle said: "Voters should realize that Prop 15 exposes a wide range of agricultural property to higher taxes, including agricultural barns, milking parlors, shops, hulling operations, irrigation systems, fruit and nut trees and grapevines, all of which are 'improvements' and not excluded from the definition of 'commercial and industrial real property' under the measure."
Even the proponents behind Proposition 15 recognized that. Their initial fact sheet used to say that Proposition 15 would indeed reassess agricultural property such as "a dairy barn, food processing facilities or wineries."
Apparently, that was before they did some polling and realized voters don't want to pay the higher food prices that would stem from increasing taxes on farms. So now, the proponents and their political allies throughout the state are singing a different tune, trying to sell the line that Proposition 15 exempts agriculture completely.
Their flip-flopping and self-contradiction would be laughable if they weren't spending so much money spreading misinformation—up to $50 million at last count. It's not just the usual suspects from Sacramento who are funding the Yes side; they also got Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg to pony up $10 million to help raise our taxes.
So, you can see what we're up against. That's why we need farmers and ranchers to keep working, all the way through Nov. 3, to tell the simple truth: Proposition 15 exposes farmers and ranchers to steep tax hikes—and when you tax farmers and ranchers, it means food costs go up.
A tax on farmers and ranchers is a tax on everyone.
Many Californians already struggled with the high cost of living before COVID-19, which just made things worse. The last thing our state needs is to tax farmers and ranchers and jack up the cost of food.
Get the facts and find out how you can help by visiting the Family Farmers Against Prop 15 website at cafarmersagainstprop15.com.
Vote no on Proposition 15.
(Jamie Johansson is president of the California Farm Bureau Federation.)