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Jon Coupal- Columnist

Jon Coupal is an attorney and president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association -- California's largest taxpayer organization with offices in Los Angeles and Sacramento. [go to website] [go to Coupal index]

Hardened Attitudes on Spending are the Problem
Spending addicted liberals despise Prop 13...
[Jon Coupal]

There is a huge difference between what most California Legislators say they do and what they really do. For example, not even the most liberal politician will openly reveal how much they loath Proposition 13 or how much they enjoy spending other people's money.

Last week I was asked to speak before the Senate Budget Committee of the California Legislature. I presented a spending limit proposal that the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has prepared in conjunction with Assemblyman John Campbell.

The taxpayers' goal is to provide a spending limit with teeth so that Californians can rest assured that they will never again find themselves in another disastrous budget situation caused by officials spending more money than we have. There are several other proposals to limit spending on the table, but our analysis concludes that most of these plans are showing a lot of gum and very few canines.

One characteristic of the Jarvis/Campbell proposal is to limit all government spending, not just general fund spending. The difference is important because the Legislature has increasingly relied on the imposition of taxes disguised as "fees" to raise revenue. Any proposal which just limits general fund spending leaves a loophole you could drive a Hummer through.

During my testimony, I noted the example of a so-called "fee" imposed on many properties in California -- the first instance of the state imposing a property tax. At that point, the liberal democratic members began attacking Proposition 13.

Pointed criticism from Senators John Vasconcellos, Deborah Bowen and Jack Scott made it abundantly clear that there continues a strong anti-Proposition 13 political force in the Legislature.

One lawmaker challenged me, saying that I certainly couldn't argue that Proposition 13 was fair when it allowed homeowners living side-by-side in similar properties to receive much different property tax bills.

At that moment, I recalled my friend and sage Professor Craig Stubblebine of Claremont McKenna College staring down a big government proponent in a debate on Proposition 13 almost ten years ago. You don't care about fairness, the professor said. "Proposition 13 is fair, but what you are concerned about is money, isn't it?" The advocate for more taxes could not deny that that was precisely the agenda.

The good professor's point continues to be valid. Those who are the loudest in condemning Proposition 13 as unfair never suggest that those paying higher taxes should pay less. They want those paying less to pay more.

However, since I was seeking support for a tough spending limit proposal, I rejected the temptation to attack the Senator's motives. I took the more diplomatic approach and explained why Proposition 13 is fair. I reviewed issues with which they should be thoroughly familiar but either won't accept or are just incapable of understanding.

I reminded them that under Proposition 13 property taxes are based on what a person can afford to pay at the time of purchase. After all, thirty-five years ago a nice home could be purchased for twenty-five thousand dollars. That was also a time when $20,000 was considered a good middle class income. Do lawmakers really expect that a longtime homeowner can afford to pay the same taxes as a new homebuyer who is willing to pay $300,000 for a similar home?

I suggested if they were really concerned about fairness they should support elimination of the property tax and go to a system where property owners are charged only for the services that their property receives. Needless to say, this idea was not readily accepted and, at this point, Senator Vasconcellos stated the only words of wisdom I heard from the other side, "This argument is going nowhere."

Proposition 13 continues to be tremendously popular with average citizens, especially homeowners, but most in government still see it as an obstacle to taxing and spending that must be overcome. And it is this devotion to spending that got the state in its current dire predicament and why, more than ever, we need a tough limit on spending to rein in our spendthrift Legislature.


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