August 22, 2003

Commentary

Proposition 13 Anniversary Results in Retelling of Myths

By Jon Coupal

As a consequence of Proposition 13 marking its 25th anniversary, we have seen numerous articles and commentaries on the taxpayers’ favorite initiative in publications around the state. Sadly, this has provided the usual suspects — those feeding at the public trough, left-wing pundits, and elitist academicians— with the opportunity to regurgitate uninformed opinions about Proposition 13 and have them published, in many cases, as if they were fact. Add Warren Buffet to the list of those who need to be educated on this important taxpayer protection.

We at the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association find ourselves, as the legal and political watchdog over Proposition 13, responding to a lot of outright nonsense that gets into print.

For example, a reporter for a Stockton newspaper recently did an article on Proposition 13’s impact on education, using as the only source a local school administrator who claimed that the tax-limiting measure was responsible for the loss of local spending control over education. Because of Proposition 13, the argument goes, Sacramento controls the purse strings.

This is a canard that we see often. The fact is that it was the California Supreme Court’s 1971 Serrano vs. Priest decision that removed the local property tax as a direct funding source for education. In this equal protection case, the Court found that the result of the previous system, where the property tax funded education, was an inequality of educational opportunity. A wealthy community with a high property tax base, such as Beverly Hills, could provide much more money to educate each pupil in the school system than a city like Compton, where the property values were much lower.

To correct this problem it was necessary for the State to take over and set up a system in which all schools receive an equal amount per student, with additional funding provided for students who fall into specific categories like “English as a second language.” Because the impact of the Serrano decision began to take effect about the same time as the passage of Proposition 13, there are those in the education establishment who fervently believe that these changes were the result of Proposition 13, and they are willing to tell this to anyone who will listen.

Another common myth about Proposition 13 — and this one was recently printed in an Associated Press story that was picked up by at least a dozen newspapers — is that Proposition 13 is responsible for the two-thirds vote for local bonds that must be repaid exclusively by property owners.

In fact, the two-thirds vote for local bonds dates back to the California Constitution of 1879 when the framers recognized that not all voters were obligated to pay the higher taxes that result from bond approval, and decided to level the playing field. The two-thirds vote for these bonds remained in force until the year 2000 when a handful of Silicon Valley multi-millionaires and billionaires spent almost $60 million campaigning to change the law, and succeeded with the passage of Proposition 39 in November of that year. Still, many editorial writers continue to blame or credit Proposition 13 for the two-thirds vote passing standard.

Proposition 13 authors Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann saw no need to add this provision to Proposition 13 because it was already in the state constitution. Instead, they used it as an example and wrote Proposition 13 to require a two-thirds vote for local special purpose taxes and for the Legislature to pass new state taxes. However, most homeowners justifiably regard the two-thirds vote for bonds and Proposition 13 as integral parts of the foundation of taxpayer protections in California.

Then there are the pundits — a former editor of the Sacramento Bee prominent amongst them — who wistfully lament the loss of the “good old days” prior to Proposition 13 when state government, they maintain, performed responsibly and well and enjoyed a good reputation. They would have us believe that if the people had not interfered using the initiative process, government would have all the money it needs and our state and its residents would enjoy everlasting prosperity.

After reading these flights of fantasy, one has to ask if these writers actually lived in California prior to Proposition 13 — a time when Jerry Brown, and his stalwart chief-of-staff, Gray Davis, presided over a chaotic government that accumulated a massive surplus while turning a blind eye to the thousands of people who were losing their homes due to property tax increases that could double in a year’s time.

But in spite of all these groundless attacks, as Joel Fox, the author of the new book, the “Legend of Proposition 13,” has written, “the people get it.” They understand that Proposition 13 was a profound step made necessary when elected representatives ignored their pressing need for tax relief. They understand and appreciate that Proposition 13 for the first time gave certainty to the taxpayer instead of the tax collector.

Two hundred and fifty Proposition 13 supporters who gathered in Los Angeles on a recent Tuesday night to celebrate its silver anniversary “get it,” too.

They enthusiastically welcomed economist Arthur Laffer, Wall Street Journal editorial writer John Fund, United States Treasurer Rosario Marin, and Arnold “The Terminator” Schwarzenegger, who paid tribute to Howard Jarvis and Proposition 13.

A common thread through the evening was discussion of the fiscal mess that the governor and the Legislature have created by massive overspending.

Regrettably, the massive overspending is putting huge pressure on our political elites to raise taxes even more. Thank heaven for Proposition 13, both as a constitutional amendment and as the frequently described “third rail” of California politics.

Destroying Proposition 13 will not be easy, but they will try.

Jon Coupal is an attorney and president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

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