More Proposition 13 Myths

Most everyone has heard about the fried rodent found in an order of chicken from a national fast-food chain. And what about the scuba diver who was picked up by a firefighting aircraft when it swooped down on the ocean for a load of water?

These stories and others like them are repeated so often that despite absolutely no evidence that they actually occurred they are referred to as urban myths.

Everyone enjoys a good story and most of these myths are intended as nothing more than tales to entertain ourselves and our friends. Strangely however Proposition 13 — California’s very serious tax limiting measure — has become associated with numerous urban myths. Here are a couple we’ve all heard.

Myth: Proposition 13 is responsible for the inadequate funding of schools. This one is usually promulgated by school administrators union officials teachers the occasional PBS documentary producer and just this week a Sacramento newspaper editorial writer.

Fact: Today even after adjusting for inflation California spends 30 percent more per pupil than it did prior to Proposition 13. Additionally California has the highest paid teachers in the nation.

Myth: Proposition 13 robbed school districts of local control of funding turning this important function over to the state. This myth is often told by school officials and members of the PTA.

Fact: The way schools are funded is the result of the 1971 California Supreme Court decision in Serrano v. Priest. In this Equal Protection case the Court ruled it unconstitutional for communities to rely on property tax revenues to determine spending on local schools. Otherwise those districts with high value property could afford to spend much more per pupil than those with low value property. Since low value property was found to often coincide with minority neighborhoods the case also had a civil rights aspect. To meet the Court’s requirements the Legislature was compelled to step in with a uniform spending formula to which the courts gave final approval in 1982.

Here are several more Proposition 13 myths that have been publicly repeated in the last few weeks.

Myth: Proposition 13 created the two-thirds vote requirement for local general obligation bonds that must be repaid solely by property owners. This was recently reported by a San Diego County newspaper in a story about a lawsuit over a local school bond. When questioned the reporter said that the attorneys for both parties had assured her this was true.

Fact: Proposition 13 said nothing about the vote threshold for bonds. When Proposition 13 passed the two-thirds vote requirement for local bonds had been in effect for 99 years. The two-thirds vote had been incorporated in the California Constitution of 1879. However the misguided reporter should not feel bad. For years the editorial writers at Los Angeles’ downtown newspaper used to regularly flog Proposition 13 for its nonexistent requirement for a two-thirds vote to approve local bonds. After being confronted with the facts they finally desisted and moved on to lashing Proposition 13 for other perceived iniquities.

Myth: Proposition 13 passed because it was backed by business especially big business so their property would be taxed at the lower residential property rate. This one appeared a few days ago in a Washington state newspaper. It was contained in a column by someone claiming to be a California refugee who wanted to warn Washingtonians of the evils of Proposition 13. He went so far as to say that the tax limiting measure would never have passed without the millions spent on misleading advertising.

Fact: This one provided everyone at the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association with a good laugh because California has always taxed property at one rate business and residential alike. In fact the major opposition to Proposition 13 other than politicians and public employee unions came from the business community whose leaders feared that if it passed the Legislature would respond by increasing taxes on business. And the multi-million-dollar misleading advertising campaign? You guessed it; the money was for ads against Proposition 13.

Proposition 13 was backed by a true grass roots effort with very shallow pockets. Its phenomenal success at the ballot box was considered by political experts to be so unlikely that when it passed it sent shock waves across the country and put the measure’s principle author Howard Jarvis on the cover of Time magazine.

Proposition 13 has become legendary to those seeking to make governments at all levels more responsive to the needs of the people. And that is no myth.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest taxpayer organization — which is dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and promoting taxpayers’ rights.

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