Howard, What Have You Done for Me Lately?
Many of those under 50 do not remember tax revolt leader Howard Jarvis, who passed away 30 years ago, and yet, perhaps unknowingly, they are benefiting from his legacy. Proposition 13, which limits property taxes and allows local voters to have the final say on new taxes, was Howard’s gift to all Californians.
By limiting annual increases, Proposition 13 makes property taxes predictable from year to year. This doesn’t just benefit senior citizen homeowners on fixed incomes who worry about losing their homes to the tax collector. It benefits all homeowners. For example, a family who bought their home just five years ago in 2011, at the typical price that year of $286,000, has already seen significant tax savings. Today, the median sales price is close to $509,000 according to the California Association of Realtors. That’s a 79 percent increase. Under the property tax system that preceded Proposition 13, which was based on current value, the family who bought their home in 2011, would see their property taxes nearly double in a few short years.
Without Proposition 13, that family who struggled to buy a home in the first place, would find themselves struggling to keep their house in an overheated real estate market. Because of Proposition 13, which limits annual assessed value increases to two percent and then applies a tax rate of one percent to the total, the family will pay $3,084 this year, not $5,090, which would be the case if there were no limit on annual increases.
But even this example understates the importance of Proposition 13 to the average property owner. You see, before Proposition 13 imposed a one percent tax rate, the statewide average was 2.6 percent — in some counties it was as high as four percent. So, without Proposition 13, our recent home buying family would actually be paying $13,234 in annual taxes.
The old system guaranteed constant increasing revenue to government but did not take into consideration property owners’ ability to pay. Even when home values declined, there was no relief for taxpayers because county boards of supervisors, city councils and local special districts could arbitrarily raise the tax rate to raise revenue.
Proposition 13 was designed to make property ownership secure for all Californians. But Howard Jarvis also wanted to make sure that the Legislature, which refused to provide tax relief when average folks were losing their homes, did not come back with new ways to punish taxpayers. The measure also requires a two-thirds vote of state lawmakers to increase state taxes and provides voters the final say on new local taxes.
Government employee unions, left wing progressives and even crony capitalists who all opposed Proposition 13 when it was on the ballot, are still complaining. They point to all the money that government has been denied because of Proposition 13 and claim that problems ranging from poverty to academic performance are due to the measure’s passage. Of course, these accusations fly in the face of facts. Even with Proposition 13, California ranks in the top 6 of all 50 states in per capital tax burden, and, according to the Department of Labor, we have the highest paid state and local employees. Add to this, after adjusting for inflation, we spend more money per pupil than prior to Proposition 13.
Those who do not remember the Tax Revolt of 1978, will be interested to know that much of the voter anger that fueled the passage of Proposition 13 was directed at insiders who benefited from the status quo. This frustration with members of the political class and their powerful special interest allies is very similar to what we are seeing in America, today.
After the passage of Proposition 13, Time Magazine featured Howard Jarvis shaking his fist on the cover of their June 19, 1978 issue. Howard went on to chronicle his 16-year effort to reform taxes in his book, I’m Mad as Hell. If he were with us today, he would be the foremost critic of government that is run for the benefit of insiders and ignores the concerns of average citizens, like those who lived in fear of losing their homes before Proposition 13.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.