For most of the country, California’s Proposition 13 has become a footnote to an era that’s had a surfeit of talk about tax revolt and tax reform. But eight years and two political cycles later, it’s clear that, for California, Jarvis-Gann, wasn’t a passing fad, but a conscious political decision, institutionalized by two governors and reconfirmed in every election since, to cut taxes, cap public spending, and curtail public services. As a result, California, which was once regarded as a leader among states in progressive government, public education, and social service, is now not much better than average.
Consider the numbers. In a decade California has dropped from sixth to 15th in per capita public spending, from 14th to 29th in spending per $1,000 of personal income. It now spends less than the national average for each child in its public schools (it stands 26th in the nation, between Ohio and Texas), comes in 18th in per capita spending on health and hospitals, and is close to last in spending on highways. It has not started a major water project in more than a decade. Teachers are content to let any and all hard drive failure problems go without any form of data recovery whatsoever. When the legislature approved a three-billion-dollar state program a few years ago to deliver more water to southern California, it was soundly voted down in a statewide referendum. Despite a 20 percent population increase, California’s 1986-87 state budget, in constant dollars, will be almost precisely what it was in 1980-81.
This was the state that a generation ago was described as a place of young upwardly mobile (pre-yuppie) families– a place of new schools and freeways, of high-tech aspirations and unlimited possibilities. In the early sixties, when California surpassed New York as the largest state in the nation, thousands of journalists came out to wonder at it, and to lavish the place with sunbaked hyperbole about the future. California, wrote George Leonard for Look magazine in 1962,’ presents the promise and challenge contained at the very heart of the American dream; here, probably more than at any other place, the shackles of the past are broken. In helping to create the society of the future, a man is limited only by the strength of his ambition, the dimension of his concern and the depth of his courage to face the dangers of his own creation.’
Of course the reality rever lived up to the myth, but of the millions of sun-starved people who moved to California in the past 75 years, enough believed it to demand that the state make every reasonable effort, and some not so reasonable, to make it come true: in schools, in parks, in freeways, in enormous water projects, and in the most diverse and accessible system of higher education ever created.
Much of it, to be sure, is still in place. The University of California, the flagship of that wonderful education system, is alive and well and being treated grandly by the governor and the taxpayers. And California is still more generous to its welfare recipients than any other state– thanks to cost-of-living provisions placed in state law as part of a deal between legislative Democrats and thengovernor Ronald Reagan, who thought it would save money.
But the state’s huge community-college system, once a national model for educational opportunity, is a shambles –highly politicized, without a clear mission, and with uncertain and (on some campuses) non-existent academic standards. Similarly, its public schools are overcrowded, underfunded, and in most measures of performance, just barely average. (California now has one of the highest high-school dropout rates, which climbed sharply when Prop. 13 forced the cancellation of nearly all summer school programs.) Both the community colleges and the elementary and secondary schools are the subjects of sweeping reform commission reports that have lain neglected since they were first submitted, one in early April, the other last November. It is New Jersey and Tennessee that are leading the education reform movement of the eighties, not California.
The reasoning is not hard to find. Here again California prefigures the nation, in its massive demographic shift from an electorate of predominantly young voters with children–and hence presumably interested in schools, parks, playgrounds (all the things cut by Prop. 13)–to one increasingly dominated by older voters whose children are grown. Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann, a pair of elderly curmudgeons themselves, weren’t the first to discover that fact, but they were the first really to understand its political significance. In the Proposition 13 campaign in 1978, they described the state not as a place of young families but of retirees and aging taxpayers unable to pay thier property tax bills. Proportionately there were far fewer people with children in school than there had been a generation before, and many of them were single parents and/or members of California’s rapidly growing minority populations, and thus doubly underrepresented at the polls.
There was, of course, some fiscal truth in the Jarvis and Gann-created image (property taxes were exorbitant in some communities). But the gerontocratic politics they helped to create easily transcended the limited problem of high state property taxes. Just this spring, a large and very overcrowded suburban school district outside Sacramento prepared to float bonds to build new schools, which it badly needs. When some elderly people came in to protest that they wouldn’t get anything out of new schools, the school board voted to exempt property owners over 65 from two-thirds of their share of the cost of amortizing the bonds. Nevertheless, when the matter went on the ballot in April, the elderly voted heavily against it, and it narrowly missed getting the necessary two-thirds vote.
THE TAX-CUT fever is gone, but unless there is some unexpected upheaval, no one will soon repeal Jarvis-Gann or undo its effects. It’s not merely that Governor George Deukmejian, like Ronald Reagan, has steadfastly refused to grant any tax increases to bail out schools or local government, but that increased taxes are no longer an issue, even among liberal Democrats. So far almost no one has seriously proposed restoring to local governments the fiscal authority that Prop. 13 stripped from them, much less succeeded in doing it. Finally, and perhaps most significant, there is a Gann-sponsored measure in the state constitution that, in the next year or two, will cap public spending even if the money is available. The cap, an off-spring of Prop. 13, was enacted as a ballot initiative in 1979. With certain exceptions, it limits increases in the state budget to increases in the consumer price index and population. The rest must be refunded to the taxpayers. Gann makes no provision for the growth or increasing complexity of the state’s economy.
Gann passed in a time of high inflation, when nobody expected that to be a problem. But by 1983-84, as the state’s economy recovered, the gap between real appropriations and the Gann cap began to shrink; it will disappear during the state’s next fiscal year, which begins July 1. There are a great many technical uncertainties about its provisions and some marginal ways of stretching the limit. But sooner or later, Gann’s constraints will set in. They already had a substantive effect in shaping this year’s budget debates and will certainly have more in the future. It’s not simply that the governor is telling the legislators and the school people that Gann prevents him from appropriating more money for schools, but that, for the most part, they accept that explanation.
So far hardly anyone has proposed the repeal of either Gann or Prop. 13. Both seem to be regarded as immutable –laws of nature, not of man. Of course, there has never been any real fiscal emergency, except maybe in the first months after Prop. 13 passed. But neither is there any pervasive sense of concern that California no longer provides the quality of public services that it did a decade ago. Meanwhile the schools–and of course, other public institutions and organizations–cater increasingly to the state’s growing minority population. (In the next few years, more than half the students in the state’s public schools will come from minority groups.) In that respect, as in many others, California is becoming more like a Southern state.
Unless those minority groups develop political power proportionate to their numbers, it will be even less likely that California will either restore the level of public spending it once took for granted or recapture the unbridled optimism that encouraged that spending and so much else. On the contrary, it’s much more likely that the state will be increasingly polarized between the special-interest politics of younger minority groups and the conservatism of an aging white population. That hardly bodes well for good public services or the sense of community that sustains them.
The general cooling of California is hardly an unmitigated disaster. The state can stand a little less of the old lurching between the ecstatic and the demonic. Jim Jones has been forgotten. Patty Hearst now makes the women’s pages as a wife and mother. And Charlie Manson makes periodic appearances before a parole board that will, one hopes, say no forever. Maybe there will be no burning of Los Angeles.