Wanted: Swift Cure for the Quick-Fix Addiction

Beverly Kelley hosts KCLU's "Local Talk" on Monday nights at 7. She is currently on sabbatical as chair of the communication arts department at California Lutheran University. Address e-mail to kelley@clunet.edu

The first step is to admit you have a problem.

The good people of California might want to consider entering a 12-step program to deal with their apparent addiction to the initiative process. As the public trusts the establishment less, it becomes more susceptible to attempting a quick fix at the ballot box.

Hiram Johnson, the California governor (1911-17) who envisioned the initiative process, missed seeing the veritable industrial complex that has resulted from his progressive reforms. How would he have responded to the profusion of professionals piling up plenteous profits as they proliferate propositions for the plebiscite to peruse?

Not pleased.

The bad ideas constituting most measures circumventing the legislative process are roundly torpedoed by the voters. However, one exception, a three-time loser in its previous incarnations, thundered into existence via a 65% avalanche on June 6, 1978.

Proposition 13 resulted when bedeviled taxpayers wearied of watching Gov. Pat Brown and the California Legislature fiddle while they got burned. Before legislative reforms, tax assessors, while allegedly corrupt, were at least savvy enough to stick business owners (who didn't cast ballots in big numbers) with larger, economy-sized tax tabs. By 1978, Proposition 13 supporters, especially those whose vehicles sported "Bring Back the Crooked Assessor" bumper stickers, were super-motivated to whack $5.3 billion off their property tax bills at the polling place. Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann calculated that their controversial initiative would accomplish two goals: first, to halt spiraling-out-of-control property taxes (which it did) and second, to diminish government's girth by cutting the food supply to Sacramento, where local tax dollars check in but they don't check out.

It was the municipalities, however, that wound up tightening their belts. After the balance-the-state-budget shift in 1992, cities were compelled to shrivel services. Most Ventura County municipalities aped the spend-first-and-tax-later folks at the state capitol with various tariffs being passed off as special assessments. Taxpayers were not amused. Some communities, however, caught the spirit of Proposition 13 and started exacting fees for services, such as the Thousand Oaks library, or by entering into limited enterprise activities, such as the Port Hueneme water project.

Although one can hardly compare the churlish Howard Jarvis to "It's a Wonderful Life's" George Bailey, had Proposition 13 never been born, residents of Ventura County would not be enjoying a mega-discounted overall tax burden. Sales and income taxes in the Golden State tower by national standards. Furthermore, post-Proposition 13 land investments pay off. Making bucks available to pay down the mortgage instead of their being sucked up by taxes allowed Ventura County property values to continue to climb.

Finally, Proposition 13's freeze of assessments at 1978 levels unless the property changes hands encourages owners to hold on to real estate longer, making for greater stability in Ventura County's assorted communities.

Admittedly, Proposition 13 has a downside. Jarvis and Gann learned the hard way that every reform exacerbates the problem it attempts to solve. Although blamed for everything from the potholes in the parkway to the O.J. Simpson verdict, Proposition 13's major flaw lies in the seemingly inconsequential phrase "property taxes shall be allocated by law," which in essence massively reallocated clout to the state from local municipalities.

Before he passed away, Gann intended to repair that unintended consequence.

On one hand, an angry anti-tax ethos has added money and names to the membership of organizations such as the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. On the other, 12-step programs require tracking down those who have been wronged and extending an effort to make amends.

Since politicos are reluctant to mess with the still wildly popular proposition, perhaps it's time for another grass-roots initiative, this one designed by taxpayers to realize Gann's deathbed desire.

Uh-oh. Do you think I might need a 12-step program myself?

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