On this last lap as California’s chief executive, a job he’s held longer than anyone in history, Gov. Jerry Brown seems to relish his reputation as a teller of political truths.
Last week, he offered a candid assessment of problems he believes were caused by the state’s most famous tax-cutting law, Proposition 13. But in so doing, Brown revealed another truth: He’s not going to tackle them before leaving office in 2019.
The governor invoked the landmark 1978 ballot measure three times during a news conference detailing his new state budget. Brown hardly ever talks about the almost 4-decade-old law, enacted during his first term in office. Even so, it remains a part of his legacy and that of every governor since.
“The passage of Proposition 13, and the insertion of the state government into local funding and local decision-making, has radically changed the nature of California government,” Brown emphatically said.
The history, here, is important. Proposition 13, a cap on the base level of property tax and a limit on future growth, was championed by a “mad as hell” Los Angeles apartment building owner, Howard Jarvis. His message resonated with California homeowners panicking over ever-rising property tax bills. Late in the game, Sacramento lawmakers scrambled to pass an eleventh-hour fix late in the summer of 1977.
When that failed, Brown scoffed at calling a special session of the Legislature. Instead, he said legislators “should go home and meditate” about the problem. The following June, after nothing happened, voters decided that they had waited long enough.
The tax cut left schools and local services with a shortage of cash, a void filled by state income taxes. With that money came all sorts of rules from the state Capitol. “It's put the Legislature way into the local process,” Brown said last week.
School boards and teachers were especially impacted by a raft of complicated mandates — the kind of regulations Brown rolled back in a 2013 education law that his proposed budget would bring up to full funding this year.
“Education is a local matter,” the governor insisted last Wednesday. “Before Proposition 13, no one even thought the state had a big role. And it’s still a local matter, as far as I’m concerned.”
But no matter how many times he’s been asked — and it comes up often — Brown has rebuffed those who want to revamp the 1978 tax law. In an interview with The Times last month, he scoffed at the idea there might be “pent-up demand to change [Proposition] 13 and raise property taxes.”
The homeowners' tax limit remains enormously popular. Liberal activists want more frequent tax assessments of commercial property, in line with actual market values. The net effect could be billions of dollars in additional tax revenues. So far, no donors have stepped forward to wage an expensive ballot battle against businesses and anti-tax groups. And it’s often said that only someone with enormous political capital could tell the entire story — good and bad — of the tax revolt of 1978.
Someone like Jerry Brown? “It takes a ballot measure,” the governor said flatly in last week’s budget event. “It’s a little late for that now.”
No doubt he was referring to 2018. He could just as easily have been talking about himself — a governor who promised seven years ago to fix the structure of government, and now seems to have concluded that one topic has even more staying power than he does.