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After 40 years, Proposition 13 still protects California taxpayers

Gov. Jerry Brown gestures as tax reformer and Howard Jarvis and reporters look on during a news conference in Los Angeles in 1978 after voters approved Proposition 13, the tax revolt initiative that inspired a nationwide movement.
Gov. Jerry Brown gestures as tax reformer and Howard Jarvis and reporters look on during a news conference in Los Angeles in 1978 after voters approved Proposition 13, the tax revolt initiative that inspired a nationwide movement. AP file

The Proposition 13 tax revolt was more than an uprising against out-of-control property taxes. Passed by voters 40 years ago Wednesday, Proposition 13 survives in deep-blue California because it stands as a strong symbol not only about controlling taxation but also about voters’ power to command the government.

After 40 years, the measure still has overwhelming public support. In a Public Policy Institute of California poll released in March, 65 percent of likely voters said Proposition 13 turned out to be a good thing, while only 23 percent said it was a bad thing. Prop. 13 has majority support across party, gender, education levels and ethnic, age and economic groups.

But over the past 40 years, spending interests have tried to destabilize Proposition 13, and it remains a target for those who want to tax more. Ending it would send notice nationally that the tax cutting fire is out.

Joel Fox.JPG
Joel Fox

Taxes haven’t exactly disappeared under Proposition 13. Property tax revenue is up 1,000% since 1978 and is growing faster than personal income. However, individual taxpayers are protected by Prop. 13, locking in property taxes when they buy their home and limiting future increases.

There has been some success increasing other taxes in California by asking voters to approve someone else paying more. That strategy is being employed against Proposition 13. It applies to all property in the state, residential and commercial. A proposed “split roll” ballot initiative would separate business property from residential and force business owners to pay more.

Opinion

But proponents have declared that they are now aiming for the 2020 ballot instead of this November. Perhaps, they believe higher voter turnout in a presidential election would help their cause, or perhaps they have seen the polls showing little support for undoing Proposition 13. Voters understand that taking down part of Proposition 13 is opening the door to dismantling the whole thing and undercutting California’s bulwark of taxpayer protection.

With California property prices spiraling ever upward, if property taxes were based on current market values, many longtime homeowners would be forced out of their houses.

Understanding Proposition 13’s legendary status for voters is akin to appreciating the underlying elements of the Robin Hood story. It wasn’t so much that Robin Hood took from the rich and gave to the poor, it was that he opposed the chief villains, including the sheriff and the tax collector. Robin Hood took back the unfairly high taxes and returned them to taxpayers, much as Prop. 13 did.

The Proposition 13 legend has surprised many by surviving four decades, especially with California’s turn to the left. On its 40th anniversary, its support remains strong.

Joel Fox, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association from 1986 to 1998, is co-publisher and editor of Foxandhoundsdaily.com and teaches at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Public Policy. He can be contacted at joel@foxandhoundsdaily.com.
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