Haunted By The Spirit of ’13
By Peter Schrag
The estimable Joel Fox, former head of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and now president of the anti-tax Small Business Action Committee, used to complain vehemently about the tendency of some on the left to blame all of California’s ills on Proposition 13.
Fox, who’s as thoughtful as he is conservative, was – is – partly right. California had plenty of problems even before June 6, 1978. It’s had lots since that didn’t have the remotest connection with Howard Jarvis’ famous stink bomb.
But last week’s budget wrestle in Sacramento was another reminder of how much of our mess was set off by the initiative and the orgy of other ballot measures and related legislative fixes that came in its wake.
The biggest example, bigger even than the Proposition 13 property tax cap, is the requirement that the legislature cannot pass any tax increase without a two-thirds vote – effectively a grant of veto power to any minority party or group, now almost always Republicans, that can muster one third of the votes, plus one, in either house.
But there are lots of others. Because Jarvis and his sometime partner Paul Gann couldn’t figure out a way to divvy up the shrunken property tax among the various jurisdictions that got a piece of it, they handed the job to the legislature – an entity enjoying less trust among voters than the locals.
And because the legislature and governor – then, as now, Jerry Brown – decided to bail out schools and local governments, rather than letting voters immediately feel the consequences of their decision, we now have the muddled accountability of a system in which the state generates the largest share of public revenues while the locals spend it.
This year and last, Jerry Brown has been pushing hard to restore more education control to the locals. But it was Brown – and of course Jarvis and Gann – who moved so much of it to Sacramento in the first place.
Again, we shouldn’t blame all that on Proposition 13 and the state’s response to it. Part at least reflects a periodic swing: local control, followed by local failure – real or perceived – followed by state mandates to fix it.
Given local political dynamics, over the local run influential parents and voters will almost inevitably drive a disproportionate share of local resources to their own neighborhoods and children. The children of the poor, of immigrants, of racial minorities, will get the short spoon. No matter how the next budget finally turns out, it’ll be the poor and their kids who will suffer the lion’s share of the cuts.
But it was Proposition 13 that, in capping local property taxes, substantially attenuated the interest of local business people and other civic-minded fiscal moderates in responsible management of schools and other local jurisdictions. That left the door to local boards wide open to the public employee unions – teachers, cops, firefighters – who became the chief sources of money and candidates in so many local elections.
And because Proposition 13 started three decades of declines in school revenues relative to other states, more and more jurisdictions, instead of putting more money into current compensation, put it into pensions and over-generous retiree health benefits – in effect deferred the cost to the next generation. That bill is now coming due.
Last week’s budget battles, like most in the past decade, were over shares of a shrinking pie, essentially a battle over which Peter will pay which Paul. Schools vs. child care; suburban schools vs. schools with many poor children and English learners over Brown’s weighted school funding formula. In Los Angeles, the school district worked out a “compromise” between losers and losers – no teacher layoffs in return for fewer school days and a pay cut.
But the biggest impacts of Proposition 13 are subtler and rarely noticed, yet no less powerful.
One is the shift from a communitarian ethic to a market ethic. It’s the expectation that students and parents will pay the lion’s share of university tuition, not the state; that new homebuyers will pay for the new neighborhood school, not the community as a whole. They are now seen as the chief beneficiaries, not society as a whole.
The other is the dramatic public embrace of the initiative process as a prime instrument of public policy and the severe restrictions on legislative discretion that comes with it.
As we were reminded again last week, despite the debates and lobbying in Sacramento, much of the budget was fixed years ago: by inflexible prison sentencing laws, by voter-enacted school spending formulas, by ballot measures denying the legislature the power to take back the money with which it first bailed out cities and counties a generation ago.
Again and again we’ve passed measures to lock in one or another spending item, denying government the discretion to make decisions that most other democratic governments take for granted. Every year Sacramento struggles with those limits. Can anyone say that the state is better for it?
Back in 1979, Paul Gann labeled Proposition 4, his spending limit imitative, “the Spirit of 13.” This is the spirit of 13.
Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears every Monday in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His newest book, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration is now on sale. View his archived columns here.