California's Historic Tax Revolt

There are relatively few books about the late 1970s tax revolt that are sympathetic to the goals of the tax reformers. With the exception of Alvin Rabushka and Pauline Ryan’s The Tax Revolt, most books that deal with Proposition 13 such as Robert Kuttner’s Revolt of the Haves to Peter Schrag’s Paradise Lost range from skeptical to downright hostile.

However, the appeal of Joel Fox’s The Legend of Proposition 13 goes far beyond its ideological sympathy to the tax revolt. Fox, who served as a longtime aide to Howard Jarvis, was heavily involved with the campaign to enact Prop. 13.

Furthermore, as President of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, Fox was very involved with the efforts to defend Prop. 13 from judicial and political attacks. Overall, this gives Fox a number of unique insights about Prop. 13’s passage, its impact, and most importantly, its legacy.

Fox begins the book by talking about the origins of Proposition 13. It all began in the mid-1960s when Howard Jarvis accompanied a middle-aged woman to the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration. The woman appealed to county officials to lower her soaring property taxes. However, county officials were not persuaded and insisted that she would have to pay the full amount on her bill. The shock this woman felt was so great that she had a heart attack in the county building and died that same day.

Jarvis told this story on a number of occasions and it even led to one of Jarvis’ favorite sayings on the campaign trail. “Death and taxes may be inevitable, but being taxed to death is not inevitable.” More importantly, this event eventually led to a tax revolt that would change the fiscal history of California and the rest of the country.

The Legend of Proposition 13 neatly recounts this history. The book describes the campaign to enact Prop. 13, detailing the vicious and desperate scare tactics used by Jarvis’ opponents Fox also describes the numerous ways that state and local governments attempted to circumvent Prop. 13 in the years following its passage. Finally, Fox talks about the frequent legal attacks on Prop. 13, culminating in the Supreme Court’s 1992 Nordlinger decision which upheld constitutionality of Proposition 13.

Throughout the course of the book, Fox also spends a considerable amount of time responding to the many criticisms of Prop. 13. He provides thoughtful responses to those who argue that it has reduced education funding and caused inequitable tax burdens.

Furthermore, Fox even counters some of the more outlandish arguments. For instance, in 1995 Robert Wright of The New Republic suggested that Prop. 13 was responsible for the acquittal of O.J. Simpson. Wright argued that because of Proposition 13, local governments lacked sufficient resources to hire competent policemen. However, Fox discovers that police in Los Angeles actually earned higher salaries than police in comparable cities such as New York and Chicago.

My only criticism of the book is that Fox fails to sufficiently detail the spark that Prop. 13 provided to the tax limitation movement. During the late 1970s, most other states lacked the combination of soaring property taxes, a recalcitrant legislature, and a large surplus that made Prop. 13 a reality in California.

As a result, most attempts to enact replicas of Prop. 13 failed. However, in the years following Prop. 13’s enactment, 17 states passed expenditure limits. In fact, California’s spending limit, known as the Gann Amendment, enjoyed some success at limiting government growth during the 1980s.

However, this is a minor shortcoming of Fox’s book. In an entertaining and highly readable book, Fox does a fine job detailing both the history and legacy of Prop. 13. At the end of the book Fox talks about the accomplishments of Prop. 13 and he is correct when he says that one of Prop. 13’s most important achievements is its durability. Despite facing an enormous amount of criticism from the media and elected officials, Prop. 13 still stands strong.

Prop. 13’s durability continues to pay dividends. With California facing a $38-billion deficit and with Democrats controlling the executive and both houses of the state legislature, the only thing preventing a painful tax hike is Prop. 13’s two-thirds supermajority requirement for a tax increase.

Indeed, 25 years after it was enacted, Prop. 13 may well deliver another victory to California taxpayers. The legend continues.