In his first full day on the job, Gov. Jerry Brown walked right up to the third rail of California politics: Proposition 13.
Heading into a meeting with local government officials Tuesday morning, Brown said implementation of the property-tax limits that Californians hold dear has contributed to the state’s financial mess. The new governor said his budget proposal next week would include plans to return to cities and counties many government functions that Sacramento took over after Proposition 13 passed.
The measure “started the centralization of power,” Brown told reporters before entering the closed-door meeting. Afterward, he expanded on that idea, saying Proposition 13 “took away the power of counties to tax, for the most part; it sent the decisions up to Sacramento. So we want to redistribute all that.”
In an interview Tuesday, Brown said he did not support an increase in property taxes. But he said that much of the fallout from the measure should be undone and that he planned to propose a “complex reordering” of government that would address some of the problems the measure created.
Voters approved Proposition 13 in 1978, when Brown was governor the first time. The measure slashed property taxes, which were used to fund schools and local governments, and made it harder for cities and counties to raise taxes.
Brown campaigned last year on a vow to work with cities and counties to decentralize power. But he has not specified how local governments might pay for some of the programs that are currently driving the state’s budget into perennial multibillion-dollar deficits.
The governor predicted that his proposal would meet stiff opposition. “It will be controversial, and it will be a struggle,” he said.
Brown, in fact, contributed to the Proposition 13-related problems he now wants fixed. After the measure passed, legislation he signed to protect schools from the loss of property taxes made them dependent on the state for funding.
“I do notice as I go through this that I do bring some knowledge,” Brown quipped Tuesday after the meeting with county leaders.
As he promised during the campaign, Brown will ask voters to bless his proposals. He plans to call a special election asking voters to extend tax hikes that state lawmakers approved last year as temporary increases, according to people familiar with the budget plan. He wants to use some of that revenue to fund his restructuring of government responsibilities.
Brown’s push to shift government “closer to the people,” as he often says, is based on the idea that cities and counties can run some programs more cheaply than the state can. Housing prisoners in local jails, for instance, costs far less than keeping them in state lockups, many officials say.
“We can ultimately save money on the local level by being more efficient [and] save the state more money,” said Riverside County Supervisor John Tavaglione, president of the California State Counties Assn., who attended Tuesday’s meeting along with other officers of the organization.
But many local officials are skeptical. They worry that the state will saddle them with programs but no money to pay for them.
William T Fujioka, chief executive officer of Los Angeles County, expressed such concern. He was not at Tuesday’s meeting and said he was frustrated that officials from the state’s most populous county haven’t been invited to a single meeting with Brown or his staff to discuss the proposal.
“We would like a seat at the table,” he said.
State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) is among the champions of shifting some of the state’s authority. He said he welcomed a discussion of Proposition 13.
“There should be no third rails,” Steinberg said.
The public, he said, doesn’t care whether the state or local government pays for a given service. They just want good police and fire protection, better schools and healthcare, and pothole-free roads.
“The ‘us’ versus ‘them’ is not going to be acceptable anymore,” he said of the often-antagonistic relationship between Sacramento and local officials. “We are all part of the same broken system, and we ought to fix it together.”