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Prop. 13 and the Unintended Consequence

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

In the Bay Area, you have commuters griping because the Labor Day party to celebrate the opening of the new Bay Bridge is being paid for by their tolls.

In Los Angeles, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wants to charge for parking at the zoo and find new ways to get more cash out of the animals and the people who visit them.

Across the state, motorists complain about highway money going for mass transit and not the roads they drive on.

Blame it on Prop. 13.

Since that landmark anti-tax measure passed in 1978, California has become an increasingly selfish state A growing number of people are voting the “What’s-In-It-For-Me?” ticket, reducing almost every call for increased spending, program cuts and new state priorities to a simple question of personal benefit rather than a decision based on California’s needs.

Call it, once again, the law of unintended consequences. When Prop. 13 went on the California ballot, it was designed to stop skyrocketing property tax hikes that were forcing low-income seniors from their homes.

It wasn’t the taxes that were the problem. Rather it was the rapid-fire boom in property values across the state that was the real villain, although that was a distinction without a difference to the folks who had to write the checks.

So Prop. 13 put a cap on the annual growth in assessments, which by itself would have solved the property tax mess. But in a raised middle finger to politicians across the state, Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann, the men behind the measure, not only set a limit on property taxes, but also imposed a two-thirds vote requirement to increase other taxes in the state.

Their argument, which was echoed 12 years later in the successful bid to pass term limits, was that politicians just couldn’t be trusted to do what’s right for the people who elected them.

There probably aren’t many California reporters left who sat through the interminable pre-1978 city council and school board meetings that set the annual tax rate.

Although there always was plenty of wrangling and arguing, it was a pretty straightforward process. A budget was presented, the politicians and the interest groups battled about what should be in and what should be out of that spending blueprint and then the board or council decided where the needed revenues were coming from and what the property tax rate needed to be to pay for the upcoming year of services.

What was different back then was that the decision was based on what elected officials decided was best for the entire community and required the entire community to pay for it, one way or another.

Enter Prop. 13, which slashed that local property tax revenue. Instead, cities, counties and school districts were forced to find other sources of revenue, leading to more fees on just about everything.

Free museums and other public facilities, where adults and kids could wander without digging deep into their pockets? Forget it. Free school bus transportation for students? Gone. Public swimming pools that served communities for decades? Closed. Ball fields and other places that generations of local residents had decided were worth the financial support of the entire community are now financed by ever-increasing fees on the people who want to use them. And for those who can’t pay the new tariffs, tough.

User fees have become the new mantra for California communities, leading to a logical question about other parts of the local budget: “If I don’t use it, why should I pay for it?

If that question is asked by seniors whose kids are grown, drivers who don’t ride transit, twenty-somethings who don’t have families and TV addicts who never see the inside of a library, what does that mean for all those things that cement California society together and make the state a place where people, all kinds of people, want to live?

Welcome to the new brave new world of toll roads and Lexus lanes, where those with the money get to speed by those without. Or where wealthy school districts can hit up well-heeled parents to pay for music classes and upgraded sports programs while inner city schools either make do or do without.

Prop. 13 was a needed response to a desperate problem that politicians were all too willing to ignore. But the tax rebellion it sparked and the anti-government feeling that continues unabated today is a drag on the state and the ability of the people we elect to do the things all of California needs them to do.

California’s motto needs to remain “Eureka (I have found it), not “I’ve got mine, Jack.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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