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Jerry Brown and the ghost of Proposition 13

March 19, 2012 |  1:12 pm

Prop. 13
The year is 2012, all right, but what Gov. Jerry Brown has managed to do by turning two potential tax ballot initiatives into one makes it feel like 1978 all over again.

Brown had his own tax ballot measure planned for November, one that would have added a half-cent to the sales tax statewide for four years and raised taxes on the wealthy. But the Courage Campaign, the California Federation of Teachers and some others had their own "millionaires tax" ballot measure heading for the same election.

The compromise cuts the sales tax hike to a quarter-cent over four years and tweaks the upper-income tax to apply graduated increases for seven years to some six- and seven-figure brackets. All this depends on getting enough signatures to get it onto the ballot. (A third measure, a millionaires tax for education promoted by L.A. civil rights attorney Molly Munger, is evidently going forward.)

So, why a compromise? Why not let both go to the ballot and duke it out with voters?

Because over decades, both the research and the political gut-checking show that the more similar measures appear on the same ballot, the smaller the chances that any one of them passes. 

If anyone knows this by hard example, it's Brown.

By 1978, some California homeowners' property taxes were going through the, well, roof. Assessments varied wildly, and the elderly -- some of whom were living in houses they'd already paid for -- worried they would lose them to taxes.

Enter Howard Jarvis, who worked for Proposition 13 in part as a lobbyist for a landlords' association.

Brown, then as now the governor of California, came way late to the game. So did the Legislature.  Incredibly, California had a nearly $5-billion surplus, most of it, paradoxically, from income tax, not property tax. (It would have one right after Proposition 13 passed too, but it had to give it to schools and cities to make up the difference after property tax revenue tanked.)

What they came up with -- Proposition 8 -- would have limited property tax increases  but only for owner-occupied homes. 

It seemed like a plausible option to Proposition 13. After all, it was ostensibly the concerns by homeowners that started the tax revolt in the first place. And a Times poll about a month before the election found that voters didn't know much about Proposition 8, but when they did, they preferred it to Proposition 13 by double digits. As my Sacramento colleague George Skelton wrote then, "In the minds of most voters, Proposition 8 still is a mystery."

On the heels of that poll, Brown and other Proposition 8 supporters launched a TV ad campaign to persuade voters to abandon Proposition 13 in favor of 8; otherwise, Brown warned, the effect would be "devastating" to state services.

It's worth noting that in the nearly 35 years since Proposition 13 passed, commercial property owners have generally fared better than homeowners because such property changes hands less often, which means that some business owners are paying taxes far below the market rate.  Homeowners now shoulder more than two-thirds of the state's property tax burden.


Proposition 8 was too little, too late.  People were already fired up over Proposition 13.  Yet even with all the voter fury, Proposition 13 paradoxically got 64.8% of the vote. If Proposition 13 had been subject to the very rules it would itself set in stone -- requiring a two-thirds supermajority vote for all future taxes, from the legislature to city hall to the state ballot -- it would not have passed.

Lesson very painfully learned, and remembered, 34 years later. 

ALSO:

Could Prop. 13 fall?

Why should Prop. 13 be sacrosanct?

The reply: Prop. 13 and the issue of Amador Valley

-- Patt Morrison

Photo: A 1978 photograph was snapped in Manhattan Beach. Credit: Los Angeles Times

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