What Jerry Didn’t Say About Prop. 13

There is said to be a policy in newsrooms that can be summarized by the phrase “If it bleeds it leads.” Anyone who has ever turned on the television and found every over-the-air channel dominated by live coverage of a freeway chase with its potential for mayhem knows what this means.

This may help explain why some in the media were salivating last week over comments Gov. Jerry Brown made about Prop 13 with an apparent expectation that the result will be a politically bloody conflict with supporters of the tax limiting measure. But for those of us who take threats to Proposition 13 very very seriously we do not accept inflammatory headlines at face value. We prefer to digest and parse what the governor actually said.

First Jerry Brown did not say he wanted to repeal Proposition 13. In fact he acknowledged that Prop 13 is not the problem. His point was that state government consolidated its power to the detriment of local governments after Prop 13. It is our view that Prop 13 did not cause this and there are cogent arguments in support of our position. (As it relates to education spending the Serrano series of court opinions was the primary — if not sole — cause of transferring power to Sacramento). If anything Proposition 13 just provided an excuse so that empire building Sacramento lawmakers could indulge their lust for power.

But if the governor wants to talk about giving locals more control that is a worthy discussion. Many fiscal conservatives — ourselves included — are a bit more sympathetic to local governments than we are to the state. It is a tenet of conservative political philosophy to divest political power to that level closest to the people assuming it can be accomplished effectively. (e.g. Alpine County has no business having a Navy). However the key to a successful plan to transfer responsibility for programs to local governments is to make the transfer of the required funds concomitant — putting local officials in the position of having to push for tax increases is not acceptable.

Taxpayers remain on guard acutely aware that many of the governor’s allies –especially the public employee unions who represent the highest paid government workers in all 50 states — would like to injure Proposition 13. Californians should not allow the bleating and pleading from the Sacramento establishment to divert them from recognizing that ours is already a high tax state. A several year old study from the Center for Government Analysis shows that California governments at all levels have more money after adjusting for inflation and population growth than they did prior to the passage of Proposition 13. And a new report from the Census Bureau shows that last year the state spent last year almost $7000 for every man woman and child in the state.

Even though there has been a decline in government revenue over the past few years it is a decline that is the direct result of taxpayers having less not anything resulting from Proposition 13. If anything Proposition 13 has aided local governments because its acquisition value system provides a reservoir of taxable value meaning that even in hard times the decline in revenue is modest compared to other taxes like those on sales and income.

So while some major media outlets would love to promote a story that says the governor is taking on Prop 13 he is not stupid. Voters rejected the Prop 1A special election tax increase less than two years ago and more recently rejected a modest tax proposal for parks as well as rejecting an effort to repeal special corporate tax breaks. In this environment even the most committed statist would conclude that a direct attack on Prop 13 would make Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg look like military genius.

For now we will wait to see his plan while remaining on full alert. If Brown seeks to give locals more taxing authority or promote any other measure to dilute Proposition 13’s taxpayer protections the gloves come off.

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.