May 21, 2013
California’s Folly — Prop. 13
Posted on Jan 26, 2010
In November 1978, Harper’s magazine published my article on the passage of Proposition 13 with the headline, “Californians Rush for Fool’s Gold.”
At that time, Prop. 13 was getting lots of national media attention. The pundits of type and tube were hyping California as the pacesetter for a post-Watergate America. At the same time, the cultural gurus were proclaiming it to be a proving ground for paradise.
Even George F. Will, the usually cautious Washington Post columnist, declared: “The East Coast, landfall for immigrants of all sorts, once was the laboratory of American politics. Today California, land’s end for migrants of all sorts, is the laboratory.”
Birthplace of the “less is more” philosophy, the Golden State had become both the cultural fad-fashioner of the nation and a dominant political force. What did this imply for the nation politically? Many observers referred to California’s trendiness as a hopeful sign of America’s greening.
While reflecting upon the “have a nice day” patter of the pundits who were heaping praise on Prop. 13, I recalled something that Albert Einstein had said: “There are only two things in this world that I’m fairly sure about. That E=mc2, and man’s capacity for folly. And I’m not that certain about the first.”
I thought then, and am firmly convinced now, that the key elements in the proposition—the taxation formula and the two-thirds legislative requirement—would be responsible for causing a fiscal and social disaster. These two requirements have in time helped to lead the state into financial bankruptcy and created a dysfunctional state government. And the social consequences that I predicted then and which are all too apparent now are a race to the bottom in education (from K through our highly esteemed university system); public health; social services; public safety; arts, libraries and culture; and infrastructure development; as well as crippling the ability of local governments to provide basic amenities.
In one way or another, almost everyone will pay a price; but the middle class, the working class and the poor—those who are dependent on public services—will be hurt the most because of cutbacks.
What I did not anticipate is that the financial squeeze would be exacerbated by a rigid and myopic band of ideologically reactionary Republicans in the state Senate who seem uniformly opposed to common sense and the public good. The problems were compounded by the recall of a governor, Gray Davis, who tried to ameliorate the deficit with a fair tax on auto registration. And he was replaced by a governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has neither the will nor the stomach to deal with the terminal negativity of his own party in the Legislature.
So, instead of the greening of America, we got the greeding of America for three decades, fueled by the media hoopla over Prop. 13 and exemplified by the national policies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Finally, as we head into a year of campaigning for the governorship and the Legislature, it is my fervent hope that the California electorate will have learned its lesson and will elect leaders who have the courage to restore equity and fairness to the state’s economic and social policies.
A healthy beginning would be to amend Prop. 13 by removing its protections for commercial property while retaining the benefits for homeowners, as well as passing a straightforward referendum that simply states: “All legislation actions based on revenue and budget shall be determined by majority rule.”
Now is the time to face reality and right the wrongs of the past. We cannot afford to live with — or pass on to our children and grandchildren — the painful consequences of 30 years of regressive policies and government by provisional catastrophe.
Excerpt from Harper’s magazine, November 1978:
... The reactionary dream of George Wallace and Ronald Reagan, repudiated by the nation at large in 1968 and again in 1976, has come to pass in California under the rubric of “a people’s tax revolt.” Four months after the passage of Proposition 13 by an enthusiastic majority in that benighted state, politicians elsewhere in the country have declared themselves in possession of a new revelation. In primary and election campaigns this fall, they have been saying that big government needs to be reduced, and they advertise themselves as courageous representatives of an electorate righteously aroused.
Before the rest of the nation joins the headlong rush to the sea, the fine print in Proposition 13 deserves a slightly more careful examination than has been provided by the wise men of the doting media.
A number of states have adopted the initiative and referendum process, but none has used it so often as California. The initiative has not proved to be a very sound means of enacting legislation. Initiatives are typically reflexive, emotional reactions to an issue, poor substitutes for the hearings, debates, compromises, and deliberations that distinguish the legislative process. And so with Proposition 13.
A disarmingly simple initiative of 389 words, it limits the taxes levied on any piece of real property—houses, apartments, factories, and businesses — and makes the limitation binding on the state Legislature as an amendment to the Constitution.
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