Thirty years ago today, the Los Angeles Times ran an op-ed by Neil H. Jacoby whose hed asked, “Would Prop. 13 really lighten the load?” and whose sub-hed answered, “Yes: bloated government will be the only loser.”1 In another story on the upcoming election, Times staffer Kevin Roderick wrote that “So overwhelming is the debate over [Howard] Jarvis’s Prop. 13 that candidates for local offices have become frustrated at their inability to interest voters in other issues.”2

Prop. 13 passed overwhelmingly, as you know. As the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association (HJTA) site tells you,

Under the tax cut measure, property tax valuation was set at the 1976 assessed value…. property tax increases on any given property were limited to no more than 2% a year as long as the property was not sold. Once sold, the property was reassessed….

Thus, the longer ago you bought your house, the more you benefit. It’s therefore hard for a new homebuyer to appreciate Prop. 13; HJTA advises you undertake this “welcome, stranger!” dialogue:

NEW NEIGHBOR…. how come I’m paying more in property taxes than some of my neighbors who have similar houses?

A. Under Proposition 13 you determine how much your property taxes will be. Your taxes are not based on your neighbors’ taxes, but are based on the price you voluntarily agreed to pay for your new home.

Awesome. Even in HJTA’s model dialogue, the last thing the “NEW NEIGHBOR” says is, “I still don’t see what good Proposition 13 is to me.”

For further assessment, let’s turn the mike over to the Bee‘s Peter Schrag, author of Paradise Lost, who has this column today:

Proposition 13 did not cause every public service calamity of the last 30 years, much less the Northridge earthquake or the San Diego County wildfires.

But in the years since Proposition 13’s passage, it has compounded California’s governmental and fiscal mess something awful.

California’s per pupil school spending, which was among the top 10 states in the 1960s, is now among the bottom 10. Proposition 13 alone is not responsible, but along with two major court decisions that preceded it, it helped decouple school funding from the local tax base and thus undercut voter incentives to fund education generously, as it had been in the generation after World War II. Our roads, once a national model, are an embarrassment.

More certainly it entangled state and local accountability to the point where it became increasingly hard even for diligent voters to understand who was responsible for what. When streets didn’t get paved, was it City Hall that was wasting money or was it state government, which now controlled the local property tax and wasn’t providing enough of it?

Worse, Proposition 13 reinforced the distrust of representative government that helped bring it on and vastly increased reliance on the initiative process and the sway of what became known as the initiative-industrial complex, the network of lawyers, consultants, petition circulators, pollsters, direct-mail operatives and the various outsiders attached to them….

… we borrow and fudge and struggle with a policy-making process that’s little more than a string of ad-hoc votes driven by deep-pocket interest groups – public-sector unions, railroads, insurance companies, real-estate groups, Indian casinos, oil and tobacco corporations, among others – the very groups whose influence the initiative process was once designed to check.

California once had a communitarian ethic. That’s been turned into a market ethic. It once did serious planning for the future. For now, that’s a nearly forgotten hope.

Happy anniversary.

1Neil H. Jacoby, “Would Prop. 13 Really Lighten the Load? Yes: Bloated Government Will be the Only Loser,” Los Angeles Times 6/4/1978, p. I1.
2Kevin Roderick, “It All Comes Down to Prop. 13, Candidates Complain,” Los Angeles Times 6/4/1978, p. SF_A1.