Killing the dream - Page 2

ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL: Tax cuts, privatization, sleaze, and the demise of California
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Drive up property values — massively — and if that means blue collar jobs and working class people had to go to make way for wealthier office workers, so be it. In the end, of course, the architects of the plan — landowners, developers, bankers, and big business leaders — became immensely wealthy.

On the state and national level, their plans were broader. Even so, they had one major aim: throttle the pubic sector. Cut off the funding for government programs, reduce regulations, undermine any concept of a welfare estate — and cut taxes on the rich.

As we report on page 8, the architects of this plan are happy today to talk about how it worked — how Reagan launched his war on government back in the 1970s, how a group of well-funded think tanks developed plans, and political consultants took advantage of people's fears (and the Democratic Party's failures) to put those plans into action.

The movement really got off the ground in 1978 with the passage of Proposition 13.

Prop. 13 emerged from a state in the middle of a massive growth spurt and a heated political cauldron of money, race, and Legislative failure. Howard Jarvis, a Republican landlord lobbyist who hated taxes, hated government, hated public schools, and disdained most Californians — "63 percent of [public school] graduates are illiterate" and would have no need for public libraries, he once quipped — took advantage of a gaping hole in political leadership and set off a movement that would cripple the United States of America.

The measure marked the final, fatal end in California of the era known as the '60s — a period when the left was ascendant, when taxes on the wealthy funded education, infrastructure and programs for inner cities, and when economic and cultural liberalization seemed to be spreading across the nation.

Rising property values, driven by rapid population growth, were driving up property taxes — and the problem was real. Long-time residents, particularly people on fixed incomes, saw their taxes rise so high they couldn't afford to stay in their homes. The Legislature could have addressed that (with, say, a split-roll measure that taxed residential and commercial property at different rates) but utterly failed to move on the crisis.

A series of assessor's office scandals didn't help, either. And, at the same time, the California Supreme Court ruled that rich school districts had to share revenue with poor districts, infuriating wealthy white property owners.

Jarvis and his partner Paul Gann circulated petitions to roll back property taxes and make it almost impossible to raise taxes in the future. It passed with 65 percent of the vote.

Of course, big businesses (particularly utilities) were the big winners. As the Guardian pointed out on June 1, 1978, the top five utilities in California alone (including Pacific Gas and Electric Co.) would gain billions from the tax cuts.

But beneath it all was a simmering discontent with government — something Jarvis had set afire and would later be used by Ronald Reagan and the right-wing operatives who backed him to undermine the New Deal, the social safety net, and the basic social contract in America. The antitax folks played to white people who didn't want to see their money going to minorities, to the middle-class folks who thought (thanks to the assessor scandals) their tax money was being wasted by corruption — and to a lot of younger people coming out of the 1960s who had learned from Vietnam, COINTELPRO, and Watergate not to trust government.

The Bay Guardian opposed the measure strongly: "Most analyses indicate that without replacement taxes, hundreds of thousands of California public servants would be thrown out of work (which is exactly what Howard Jarvis intends) ... " a May 18, 1978 editorial noted. "Vote for Prop.