Historic Prop. 13 property tax revolt turns 30

Thirty years ago this week, California voters started a taxpayer revolt that quickly spread to other states, helped set the stage for President Ronald Reagan’s income tax cutsand inspired an entire generation of die-hard opponents of big government.

While the rest of the country slept through the Carter presidency, hundreds of thousands of Californians participated in a true grass-roots petition campaign to place an initiative on the June 1978 ballot. Then they voted for this historic measure, Proposition 13, to amend their state Constitution to limit property taxes.

Proposition 13 limited (a) taxes on real property to 1 percent of value and (b) increases in property taxes to 2 percent annually. In simple terms, a home worth $500,000 could be taxed up to $5,000, and in the event that the value of the home went up, those taxes could increase by no more than $100 (i.e., 2 percent of $5,000) in year one, then $102 (2 percent of $5,100) in year two, and so forth.

For good measure, Proposition 13 went beyond property tax reform — for an increase in local general taxes, it required the approval of local voters, and for an increase in state taxes, it required a two-thirds majority in the state Legislature.

The logic was compelling. Howard Jarvis, Proposition 13’s creator, felt that if you limited property taxes but did not otherwise inhibit government, it would raise other taxes promiscuously.

Early on, I urged my client, Attorney General Evelle Younger, a candidate for governor in the Republican primary that June, to endorse Proposition 13. I argued that even if it lost, it would win handily among Republicans, and he needed them in the primary. And if it won, it would probably do so broadly, and he needed to expand his base for the general election. One of Younger’s impressive primary opponents, San Diego Mayor Pete Wilson, like most mayors, opposed Proposition 13 as fiscally imprudent.

Partly because of his support of Proposition 13, Younger won the June 6 primary. Against my counsel, he then took an immediate vacation to Hawaii. Meanwhile, Gov. Jerry Brown, who had campaigned vigorously against Proposition 13, turned on the proverbial dime: He immediately, wholeheartedly embraced its implementation.

By Election Day in November, confused voters credited Proposition 13’s opponent, the Democrat Brown, with championing lower taxes and, accordingly, re-elected him.

For most California Republicans, though, 13 turned out to be a lucky number. In November 1978, a host of young Republican candidates (“Proposition 13 babies”) won seats in the Legislature and then advanced politically as conservative prospects improved.

Republicans George Deukmejian and Wilson (who always supported Proposition 13 after 1978) were elected governor and reelected (1982, 1986, 1990, 1994).

Fast forward to the 2003 recall of Democrat Gov. Gray Davis. During the campaign, challenger Arnold Schwarzenegger brought Warren Buffett for a staged fiscal summit. The billionaire investor made big news in urging a remake of Proposition 13. Fearing implosion of his campaign, Schwarzenegger publicly disowned Buffett, who quickly disappeared from Schwarzenegger’s entourage. The Terminator could not hint at terminating Proposition 13.

For all its subsequent popularity, Proposition 13 was never an electoral certainty. Jarvis had tried and failed with similar measures. Proposition 13 at first seemed headed for defeat. Big business allied with politicians in both parties, along with police, firefighters, teachers and all the usual suspects in a lavish campaign to kill it.

They provided a “moderate” alternative, Proposition 8, which would have trumped 13 if it had received more votes. But just weeks before Election Day, homeowners across the state received their reassessments, which were substantially higher and thus foretold huge property tax hikes.

Then a late revelation of a sizable state budget surplus undercut the main rationale for opposing Proposition 13 — that the state needed revenue. In the end, voters repudiated the hysterical anti-Proposition 13 ad campaign that suggested that, if not the world, then the state’s government would come to an end if deprived of higher property tax receipts.

Jarvis’ campaign focused on homeowners, but business has also been the beneficiary, because Proposition 13 treats business and residential property the same. Yet the state’s largest corporations led the charge against Proposition 13. They bought into the argument that, if Proposition 13 passed, government would be so starved that it would be unable to provide basic services.

California, the line went, would become a statewide ghost town, bereft of such public necessities as policing, firefighting and schooling. Corporations would leave, new enterprises would not start or move here. Employment would fall, so, consequently, would public revenue in an endless cycle of decay.

Proposition 13 detractors are still saying these things. Jarvis, who died in 1986, would love that they’re still whining about his mischief. He was a sort of precursor to Ross Perot but of decidedly modest means.

In his own way, he told people to look under the hood. Things were not that complicated, he maintained. Jarvis was the consummate anti-politician who appealed to this populist preoccupation: Government does not need more money, it merely must stop wasting what it has.

Jarvis was crusty and fiercely independent. He felt more comfortable among Republicans but was hardly a party man. In fact, he tilted toward Brown in the general election. That’s because he went with the power, and Brown assured him he would faithfully implement Proposition 13.

For government expansionists, Proposition 13 represents all that is wrong with the conservative movement. They have chafed at its restraints for more than a generation. Because of it, they feel, people in the Golden State are denied the public sector resources necessary to provide vital services and to fund public education adequately.

But California has done quite well since 1978. If Proposition 13 really has bankrupted state, county and city government here, then why didn’t Silicon Valley move elsewhere?

The truth is, it’s hard to imagine California without Proposition 13 or to argue that the state would be better off without it. After all, is it so tragic that people who own a home can look into the future and know they will not lose it over runaway property taxes? Gas prices may go up, costly home repairs may be needed, but your property taxes can only increase incrementally each year.