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Michael New - Contributor

Michael J. New received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Stanford University and is currenty a post-doctoral fellow at the Harvard-MIT Data Center. Michael's research interests include tax limitations, campaign finance reform, and welfare reform. Michael's writings have appeared in a number of publications including Investor's Business Daily, National Review Online, and the Orange Country Register. He is a board member of The Stanford Review and an Adjunct Scholar at the Cato Institute. [go to New index]


The Legend of Proposition 13
A timely book review: The Legend of Proposition 13 by Joel Fox
[Michael J. New] 9/13/03

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 Proposition 13. Furthermore, as President of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, Fox was very involved with the efforts to defend Proposition 13 from judicial and political attacks. Overall, this gives Fox a number of unique insights about Proposition 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 women 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 Proposition 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 Proposition 13 in the years following its passage. Finally, Fox talks about the frequent legal attacks on Proposition 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 Proposition 13. He provides thoughtful responses to those who argue that Proposition 13 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 Proposition 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 Proposition 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 Proposition 13 a reality in California. As a result, most attempts to enact replicas of Proposition 13 failed. However, in the years following Proposition 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. Furthermore, the raising of the Gann limit in the early 1990s has contributed greatly to California’s current fiscal woes.

However, this is a minor shortcoming. In an entertaining and highly readable book, Fox does a fine job detailing both the history and legacy of Proposition 13. At the end of the book Fox talks about the accomplishments of Proposition 13 and he is correct when he says that one of Proposition 13’s most important achievements is its durability. Despite facing an enormous amount of criticism from the media and elected officials, Proposition 13 still stands strong. In fact, during the past 25 years, no one has even made a serious effort to significantly change Proposition 13. This is because most people in California support Proposition 13 and appreciate all that it has accomplished.

Indeed, Proposition 13’s durability continues to pay dividends. This summer with California facing a $38 billion deficit and with Democrats controlling the executive and both houses of the state legislature, the only obstacle to a painful tax hike was Proposition 13’s two-thirds supermajority requirement for a tax increase. Indeed, 25 years after it was enacted, Proposition 13 continues to deliver victories to California taxpayers. The legend continues.

Michael New
is a board member of The Stanford Review and an Adjunct Scholar at the Cato Institute.

copyright 2003 Michael New



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