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  • Writer's pictureNewsmakers with JR

Prop. 13's Legacy: The Night Howard Jarvis Mooned California

A few hours after California voters passed Proposition 13 in a landslide, chief sponsor Howard Jarvis dropped his pants for the benefit of a few reporters standing in his suite at the Biltmore Hotel in L.A.

Talk about your eyewitness to history.

It was several minutes after midnight, Wednesday, June 8,1978, when the prime mover of the state's iconic property tax cut finally granted an audience to a small pack of news hounds who'd chased him around the hotel for hours, as he moved from one celebration to another.

As we stood in the foyer, Jarvis walked in from the living room, moving with a conspicuous limp. The AP guy asked about it, and the 74-year old curmudgeon began a shaggy dog tale about tripping and falling at a TV studio in Sacramento a day or two before.

Not abstemious by nature, Jarvis apparently decided that graphic evidence would improve his account. A spud potato of a man, he on the spot lowered the trousers of his baggy brown suit, exposing a pair of white boxers as big as a jib, along with a livid, purple bruise on his stern, roughly the size of Rhode Island.

A sight that never could be unseen, the image of Howard Jarvis shooting a white cotton moon on Election Night remains seared in memory as Newsmakers' most durable image of Proposition 13.

What Jarvis wrought. As a political matter, Prop. 13 itself indelibly endures, having framed the warp and weft of California politics and governance for more than four decades.

In the first days after its passage, amid loud protests by public employees gathered under a scorching sun in Sacramento, a young and shaggy Governor Jerry Brown renounced his previous opposition and declared himself a "born-again tax-cutter" while Jarvis appeared on the cover of Time -- even as the Legislature, under the conscientious leadership of the late Speaker Leo Tarcissus McCarthy, upended, reordered and transformed the fiscal affairs, not just of state government, but of every board of supervisors, city council, school board and water, street light, cemetery and other special district in the state.

Since then, Prop. 13 broadly has defined and delineated the scope of budgetary choices available to elected officials throughout California, its restrictions and caps on ad valorem property taxes the substructure on which generations of politicians have erected a byzantine and bewildering construction of state and local taxation and land use policies.

CalMatters reporter Ben Christopher summed it up nicely in a terrific piece this week:

In the short term, the measure gave homeowners a lasting tax cut and, amid skyrocketing real estate prices, made it much easier for homeowners to stay in their homes. In exchange, property tax payments plummeted 60% in a year, cutting $7 billion from city and school district budgets. 

Longer term, Prop. 13 had a number of unintended consequences. State government assumed a much bigger role in school financing. Local governments suddenly had a bigger incentive to approve commercial real estate over residential development. Governments across California turned to other sources of revenue — including income taxes, use taxes and fees — to make up the difference. 

The Prop. 13 campaign reverberated across the country. Jarvis, the garrulous, cigar-chomping political gadfly who had been tilting at California’s tax code, Don Quixote-like, for decades, became a magazine cover-gracing populist hero overnight. Tax-capping measures sprouted up elsewhere, augering the landslide election of Ronald Reagan.

Amending an amendment. One measure of Prop. 13's over-arching influence in the public sphere is the sheer number of attempts to amend, improve, revise, tweak or weaken the deceptively simple language of the constitutional amendment.

As Christopher reports, Californians since Prop. 13's passage have voted nearly three dozen times on ballot measures aimed at changing it in some way -- approving 24 of them.

If it seems like California voters are perpetually being asked to redefine, clarify, overhaul or rewrite the terms of the 1978 tax revolt, it’s because we are. Since Prop. 13, the state has voted 33 times on potential amendments to it.

These offshoots of Prop. 13 have sprouted their own offshoots, adding additions to revisions to edits of the original text. Forty-two years later, the tree first planted in 1978 has gotten mighty tangled.

In the November 3 election, there are two more measures that seek to reformulate Prop. 13.

One -- Proposition 19 -- is a wooly-headed affair concocted by the Legislature that would make several relatively modest changes: 1) awarding elderly homeowners who have been among Prop. 13's greatest beneficiaries yet another tax break while 2) simultaneously taking one away from their spawn, who could no longer reap the rewards of low taxes on a property they inherit and then seek to use for rental income.

The other -- Proposition 15 -- is a considerably more far-reaching proposal, which represents a full frontal assault on the foundational terms of Prop. 13. Changing the rules for calculating tax bills for commercial and industrial real estate valued at $3 million or more, it seeks to transfer $7-12 billion in wealth annually from the owners of office buildings, shopping malls and industrial parks, not to mention Disneyland, to the treasuries of public schools and local governments.

The Great White Whale. The most consequential measure of a dozen on the ballot, Prop. 15 at 6,862 words is more than 15 times longer than the original Prop. 13, a bid to undo a pro-business tax break against which many Democrats, and their patrons in public employee and teachers unions, have chafed for decades.

It makes manifest a Great White Whale of public policy long fantasized by progressives: a "split roll" assessment system that treats corporations much tougher than homewoners.

(See our posts on Prop. 20 here, here and here).

A Public Policy Institute of California poll out this week showed the measure clinging to a narrow lead of 49-to-45 percent, a far more closely contested question than the nearly 2-to-1 vote that ushered in the era of Prop. 13 itself.

Prop. 15 is by far the boldest effort yet to undo much of what Prop. 13 wrought that long-ago night - long before cell phone cameras, alas -- when Howard Jarvis celebrated his life's triumph in undraped fashion.

“Californians remain closely divided on Proposition 15 as its proponents and opponents make their closing arguments to voters over the next few weeks,” PPIC president Mark Baldassare said.

We're not in the prediction business but, um... if we were, our bet would be that voters reject Prop. 15, giving the late Howard Jarvis the last laugh one more time,


Images: Howard Jarvis and Jerry Brown 1978 (NY Timeshare); Jarvis celebrates with Prop. 13 supporters at the Biltmore Hotel, June 7, 1978 (; Screen shot of interactive tool of Prop. 13 and ballot measures to change it ( Evergreen Prop 13.(

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