In the long-standing tradition of pointing at Proposition 13 as the cause for all the ills that befall California, Joe Mathews and Mark Paul penned an opinion piece in yesterday’s Sacramento Bee declaring that Proposition 13 and its aftermath “robs us of our ability to govern ourselves democratically and condemns our children to a shabbier life.”
I imagine the folks at the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association will add that line to the list of the “Top Ten Ridiculous Things Blamed on Proposition 13.” The measure has been held responsible for a freeway collapse during an earthquake, child obesity, the lack of choir singers, and even O.J. Simpson’s not-guilty verdict in the 1995 criminal trial, to name a few examples.
But let’s look at the charges by Mathews and Paul.
I actually have sympathy for their charge that some power was centralized in Sacramento after Proposition 13 passed. Legislators took the advantage of wording in the measure that allowed property taxes to be “apportioned according to law.”
The legislators make the law. Neither Prop 13 co-authors Howard Jarvis nor Paul Gann wanted the state to take more power, and that power shift could be corrected by simple statute – if the legislature so desired.
However, the biggest piece of the state control of local government and spending came with the state overseeing schools. Prior to Proposition 13, California courts in two Serrano cases declared that the state had to equalize school spending per pupils. Search high and low and you won’t find one mention of Serrano in the Mathews and Paul piece.
It has been conjectured that then Governor Jerry Brown was holding on to what was termed an “obscene surplus” at the time Proposition 13 passed to use in satisfying the Serrano decisions. In other words, the state was already planning to be a major funder of the schools. And, with the money, would come dictates from the state government on how the schools should operate.
Mathews and Paul complain that Proposition 13 slashed property taxes and put up higher barriers to pass taxes and bonds. First, lets set the record straight. The two-thirds vote requirement for bonds was established in the 1879 constitution, not by Proposition 13, and it was quickly re-established after Prop 13 passed.
Most local infrastructure is paid by property taxes through general obligation bonds. Before Proposition 13 passed, G.O. bonds were used to build the state of California into a dynamo, becoming the most populous state in the union, all under a two-thirds vote requirement for bonds.
Property taxes have been climbing steadily since Proposition 13 passed. Property taxes are the state’s most reliable tax, remaining fairly steady even during rough economic times. Not a word about the reliable and steadily growing property tax from Mathews and Paul.
As to the claim that public employee unions’ increased power and benefits can be laid at the feet of Proposition 13, I would just say look to Wisconsin. No Proposition 13 there where a big fight is playing out over public union power. Look to New Jersey and Governor Chris Christie’s clash with the public employee unions. No Proposition 13 there. The same can be said in a number of states.
Mathews and Paul’s solution is to unwind the current system returning to Pre-Prop 13 days. Perhaps they forget what those days were like.
The old system, they claim, would put a check on uncontrolled taxes — with concerned taxpayers pushing back against proposed tax increases — did not work in California prior to Prop 13 passing. Voters attended rallies and they showed up at city halls and board of supervisors meeting but property taxes continued to go up dramatically.
There was a large property tax protest in Los Angeles in the late 50’s; the following decade, Ronald Reagan, in his opening speech announcing he was a candidate for governor said something must be done about property taxes. Two property tax reduction measures were qualified for the statewide ballot in 1968 and 1972 sponsored by the Los Angeles County assessor.
All these signs and nothing was done about soaring property taxes. Not until Proposition 13 came along.
But Mathews and Paul say let’s go back to those “good” old days? I don’t think so.