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How Right-Wing Anti-Tax Crusaders Ruined California

Every time corporate regulations are removed, disasters follow: gutted education, cuts to emergency services and recession. So why would anyone call for "small government"?

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."

George Santayana

It’s hot outside, but it’s stifling inside the bus. As the 60-foot-long accordion bus wheezes down Van Ness Avenue, there isn’t a seat to be had. People are crammed into the aisles body-to-body, like cattle, thankful to have space to plant their feet and an overhead bar to grab hold of.

The next stop is Van Ness and Grove. While 100 of us wait in the heat and misery, the bus loads slowly and the driver yells at everyone to move to the rear, though there’s no space there either.

Just as the doors are about to close, a twenty-something man in jeans and sunglasses with a bag over his shoulder sprints up. He sticks his arm in the back door and keeps it from closing all the way, then pries it open. A comically unpleasant ride awaits, but he doesn’t want to wait 15, 20, or 25 minutes in rush hour heat for the next bus. When he presses in, standing precariously at the bottom of the stairs by the back exit, the doors won’t shut all the way, so the driver announces over the intercom that everyone has to get on all the way -- or else we’ll all wait.

Welcome to San Francisco, the world-class city with a coach-class public transit system.

San Francisco is officially a transit-first city with an eye to a green future, but it has done little to coax people out of their cars over the past several years. Since 2003, the fare for a single ride has doubled and the cost of a monthly fast pass has increased from $35 to $60-$70, and yet service has declined, with fewer routes, longer waits, and frequent past-capacity crowds.

Much of the revenue/service squeeze is attributable to the recession, and the bus drivers’ unions haven’t helped with self-serving labor rules that generate enormous overtime costs. And San Francisco’s corporate Democratic mayor hasn’t exactly gone to bat for riders, short as they are on campaign contributions.

But one major source of blame that’s often overlooked is the role of brutal state budget cuts to public transportation, and behind that, the devastation wrought by Proposition 13.


Throughout the mid-‘70s, California land values soared, which raised property taxes. The steep increases created hardship, particularly for elderly homeowners on fixed incomes, and anger, as the state sat on a surplus of $5 billion by 1978.

Up stepped Howard Jarvis, a retired entrepreneur and former Republican political candidate. Jarvis, who had lobbied the state legislature on behalf of fat cat Los Angeles landlords (to oppose rent control for the hoi polloi), joined Paul Gann, a Realtor, to come up with Proposition 13. 13 was an extreme response to a legitimate problem -- a ballot measure that limited annual property tax increases to 2%,which guaranteed drastic reductions in state revenues.

Backed by the organizational and financial muscle of real estate interests certain to reap tremendous financial benefits from the measure, Jarvis manipulated the cynicism toward government borne by Vietnam and Watergate, and masqueraded as a man of the people, even cleverly titling 13 “The People’s Initiative to Limit Property Taxation.”

To head off 13’s precipitous cratering of state funds -- and services -- Governor Jerry Brown and the California legislature passed a measure that cut property taxes about half as much (30%) and put it on the ballot as Proposition 8.

A prescient editorial in the LA Times warned at the time that “Enactment of Proposition 13 would create fiscal havoc among cities and counties in California, and the new and higher state taxes necessary to restore their stability would fall heaviest on those whom the initiative purports to benefit.” But voters -- particularly those higher up the income ladder -- bypassed Proposition 8’s substantial tax reductions in favor of 13, taking a leap of faith that government revenues could be decimated and things would magically turn out o-k.

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