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The Coffee Party for California

Byline Susan LaTempa

At the annual Liberty Hill Advisory Board brunch last Saturday, an energizing post-election panel discussion hit listeners like a jolt of joe.

The mood was caffeinated-- literally (thanks to the sunny morning buffet) and metaphorically, as panelists convincingly argued that grassroots work already underway in California could make for real progress in budget reform.

The fast-paced, closely-attended, grasp-it-now presentation was focused on community organizing work that will (1) help the state's electorate become more like the state population by engaging 500,000 new and occasional voters, and (2) improve state revenues by exposing eye-popping loopholes that allow billions of dollars in commercial property taxes to go uncollected.

The panelists were Congresswoman Judy Chu of California's 32nd District; Anthony Thigpen, founder and president of Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education (SCOPE) now leading California Alliance; and Lenny Goldberg, Executive Director of the California Tax Reform Association. The audience was composed of several dozen of Liberty Hill's most committed donor-activists, a politically seasoned, skeptical group. 

KB, Judy chu, lenny goldberg, anthony thigpenn 
In her introduction, Liberty Hill CEO Kafi D. Blumenfield outlined the need for a broader base of Californians ready to help "build a nation that allows all its people to thrive," and panelists responded with compelling reports of practical steps already being taken to create that broad base. 

Representative Chu gave an insider's view of the coming lame duck session in Washington and the political chances of particular measures relating to economic issues. 

Anthony Thigpen then zipped through an analysis of the recent election results in California from the perspective of the work of the California Alliance, a group of grassroots organizations working to add 500,000 motivated voters to the state's electorate. By connecting with people's deeply-held social values and cutting across demographic lines, the alliance is engaging new and occasional voters who don't usually participate in non-presidential elections.

Its data on the November voting indicate that in the ten counties where California Alliance worked in support of Proposition 25 (to establish a simple majority for budget passage), five to ten percent of the yes votes came from voters contacted by Alliance organizations. Los Angeles was vital to the effort, he said. Forty percent of California Alliance's statewide results were because of LA-based Alliance anchor organizations Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE),  SCOPE, Community Coalition, and InnerCity Struggle, all Liberty Hill grantees. 

Lh grantees involved in Cal Alliance work slide 
"I am usually quite pessimistic," said one enthusiastic attendee after the discussion, "But I'm impressed with how engaged these presenters are with the citizens. They're not contemptuous about people that aren't part of the progressive movement. They're listening in a new way."

Next up, Lenny Goldberg added a shot of espresso to the already-stimulating mix. "The single largest flaw" in California's tax system, he said, "is the way we assess and tax commercial property." What's wrong? Well, first of all, we tax new investment heavily (not good for economic growth), but less well known is the fact that, as Goldberg succinctly summed up, "Any good real estate lawyer knows how to structure a deal so there's been no change of ownership." No change of ownership means no reassessment for a commercial property.

When a house or apartment building is sold, it is reassessed. But his group has found such "major changes of ownership" in commercial properties as "private equity buyouts, corporate purchases of companies and bank mergers" that did not trigger reassessments.

As a result of loopholes, the portion of property taxes paid by residential and commercial property owners respectively has shifted. Today, residential property owners bear the major portion of the burden. In Los Angeles County, the residential share of property tax has increased from 53% to 69%. 

With readily available information, community members are walking street by street through their neighborhoods and reviewing the amount of property tax paid by each building. The evident disparities, Goldberg believes, will help create support for a public discussion of tax reform. "We have to put the issue of commercial property tax on the table," he urged, "We can see the impact on the communities. As it is now, it's bad for business and growth and it's skewed. It's a hole in the system."

After a to-the-points Q & A session, audience members gathered in smaller clusters before leaving the meeting site, a bright beachfront room at Annenberg Community Beach House.

There was something fitting about the location.  This friendly public facility on Santa Monica State Beach was first a movie star's estate and then a private club. Its 21st-century incarnation as a community gathering place illustrates the benefits of public stewardship of resources such as beaches. 

It's a great place to gaze at the joggers, bike riders, volleyball players and the horizon-- and reflect over a cup of coffee.

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