The Metropolitan Forum Project Reviving Citizen Civic Engagement

Effects of Prop. 13 still being felt today

June 09, 2003

Orange County Register

Sacramento Bureau Chief

They were an unlikely couple, those two.

Utah-born Howard Jarvis was a fast-talking, blustery, rabble-rousing hater of politicians - except for Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon - who published a newspaper, lost two brothers in World War II and ran a California aircraft parts company that employed 13,000 people.

Paul Gann, Arkansas-born, soft-spoken and twice bankrupt, was a successful real-estate salesman and automobile dealer, one of 11 children of a preacher, a Democrat- turned-Republican who railed against government waste.

Both hated taxes. In 1977, they found each other. The result was Proposition 13, easily the most single important political event in California in the past half-century.

Twenty-five years after the Proposition 13 earthquake rolled across California, the political aftershocks are still being felt. Nowhere is the shaking stronger than in the state Capitol, where cash-hungry budget writers, seeking tweaks to Proposition 13, struggle to reconcile the locals' needs with the state's purse.

But Proposition 13, thus far, has remained sacrosanct.

Voters approved the Proposition 13 ballot initiative by a 2-1 margin on June 6, 1978. It rolled property taxes back to 1 percent of 1975 levels, then limited future increases to 2 percent annually, regardless of a property's market value, except when homes were sold or rebuilt. It required two- thirds votes in the Legislature for new taxes. It cut property taxes, residential and commercial, by 57 percent.

Fueled by voters' anger over spiraling property taxes and a $6.2 billion state surplus, Proposition 13 took the state by storm. Political pros foolishly dismissed Jarvis and Gann as one-issue gadflies, and even in the final stretch to Election Day, it was not clear in Sacramento that a political upheaval approached.

"Tonight was a victory against money, the politicians, the government," Jarvis thundered the night Proposition 13 was approved. Indeed, Proposition 13 remains to this day the quintessential anti- government statement.

But there's another side to Proposition 13.

It forced cash-hungry local governments to depend on the state as funds withered. People liked services but disliked paying for them, so the state's new cash-cow role wound up centralizing power in Sacramento as the Legislature tied knots in the purse strings. Local control, so cherished by those who supported Proposition 13, was eroded badly, despite the rhetoric. Critical decisions over the state's money increasingly came out of secret meetings between the governor and the top four legislative leaders, leaving the rank and file to simply ratify the deals. Similar homes, side by side, were taxed at vastly different rates depending only when they were bought, infuriating first-time buyers.

So why has Proposition 13 lasted so long?

Because, as Howard Jarvis' successor Joel Fox once said, "Proposition 13 is about taxpayer protection, and the public gets it."

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