Forty years ago this month, California voters began the modern tax revolt movement that spread across America like wildfire. The idea that citizens could take back control from an overreaching government helped to propel Ronald Reagan to the presidency. Reagan, who had a close friendship with Howard Jarvis, took his message of limited government to Washington and his message of freedom to the world.
Proposition 13 cut property taxes, put limits on their rise, and toughened the requirements for passing other tax increases. It passed overwhelmingly in June 1978, and ever since, liberals have failed to acknowledge how wrong they were about it — both in terms of politics and policy.
Two months before the vote, California’s then Gov. Jerry Brown (version 1.0), was quoted in the New York Times as saying “I don’t think there is one credible observer who thinks Proposition 13 will endure over the long period.” Forty years later, it’s Brown who is heading into the political sunset while Proposition 13 continues to protect grateful California taxpayers.
So-called “experts” were also wrong in their dire predictions about the harm that would be inflicted on California if Prop. 13 were to pass. One of the TV commercials run by the well-funded opposition campaign featured a doom-saying UCLA economist who predicted that California would be plunged into a deep recession if voters approved the measure. But in the years immediately following passage, California had an extraordinarily booming economy.
Progressives like to perpetuate another falsehood about Prop. 13 in their ceaseless efforts to divide and conquer the taxpayer coalition that supports the law. They seek to target the owners of business properties who, like homeowners, benefit from predictable taxes under Prop. 13. A false argument is advanced that during the 1978 campaign, voters weren’t told that Proposition 13 protections would be extended to business properties as well as homes.
This simply isn’t true. The opponents of Prop. 13 themselves repeated that fact throughout the campaign and, specifically, in the official ballot pamphlet.
Perhaps the granddaddy of all lies about Proposition 13 is how it “destroyed education” in California. This falsehood is repeated so often and with such vigor that it is accepted as established fact by liberal elites and mainstream media. For example, just a couple of weeks ago, Sacramento mayor and former Senate leader Darrell Steinberg blamed Prop. 13 for “years of cutbacks to arts funding in public schools.” This despite record revenues being pumped into education.
To be specific, it is true that just prior to Prop. 13’s passage in the late 1970’s, schools in California were top notch with good facilities, high test scores and competent teachers and administrators. It is also true that, around the same time, education in California began a steep decline. But the cause has not been a lack of revenue. Today California is spending 30 percent more on a per-student, inflation-adjusted basis than it did in the mid-70’s. The cause of the decline is the subject of another column, if not a book, but there were two other big changes to the law in the late 1970s: court decisions that redistributed education funding, and legislation granting California teachers the right to unionize and go on strike.
Today’s higher spending on education is mirrored throughout the California government. Property tax revenues have far outstripped population and inflation increases, so it’s not Prop. 13 that has caused the ills that plague California. Waste, fraud and abuse of taxpayer dollars on top of heavy-handed tax burdens and overregulation are what’s draining the gold from the Golden State.
Despite a persistent and powerful coalition of tax-raising, big-spending special interests arrayed against us, California taxpayers are prepared to defend Prop. 13 for another 40 years. We have the truth and the facts on our side, and as John Adams observed, “facts are stubborn things.”
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.