Jerry Brown’s karma runs over his dogma

By Thomas McKelvey Cleaver / The Rag Blog / May 18, 2012

Back in January, California Governor Jerry Brown optimistically forecast that the state budget deficit would be $9.5 billion. To close the gap, he proposed massive cuts in funding for in-home care of the disabled, which would force people into expensive nursing homes; massive cuts to an already-battered state higher education system that already forces in-state students to pay over 52% of costs, accompanied by cuts in financial aid to students; cuts in eligibility for Medicare, which takes care of the poor; cuts in support for the Supplemental Nutrition Access Program (food stamps); further deep cuts to K-12 education; it was a previously-unimaginable Democratic budget in California history.

And the governor said it would only stay as bad as it was if California voters didn’t vote to raise taxes on upper incomes in the June primary. The governor’s attempt to get the tax measure on the primary ballot failed in the legislature; after a major effort to collect enough signatures to put it on the ballot for November, it will now come to a vote then.

On Monday, May 14, it was revealed that the actual budget deficit would be $16.5 billion, almost twice the governor’s prediction, which proved his critics right that he was guilty of excessive optimism in January. The next day, the Governor announced further increases in the previously-announced cuts. Left uncut were the several billion dollars scheduled to be spent in building a new Death Row at San Quentin, a project the governor is set on doing.

This is not the California I came to 45 years ago. In 1974, it wasn’t the state I looked forward to working in its politics to keep that dream growing. That California was willing to set priorities to improve itself by improving the lives of its citizens,and its citizens were willing to invest in that future through their taxes. That California worked.

I doubt I have ever seen anything so karmic as Jerry Brown being the governor forced to pay the piper now that the pigeons of Proposition 13 have come to roost. That’s because Jerry Brown is the governor who could have avoided all of this. One action by Jerry Brown in 1976 would have changed everything, but he was too busy presenting “new ideas” on how to change everything, to be bothered by focusing on some old-fashioned something like property tax reform.

As anyone of a certain age can remember, property values started skyrocketing nationwide in the mid-1970s as the leading edge of the Boomers graduated from college, got the jobs they’d trained for, got married, and started planning to raise families. I recall a house I bought in 1976 for what I thought was an inflated $38,000 for what was there, selling two years later for an eye-popping (to me anyway) $50,000, and it only went up from there.

California education, and most of California local government, was paid for by property taxes, and those taxes were going up faster than the inflation rate, which was bouncing toward double digits and scaring hell out of people. Homeowners were making major adjustments to their lifestyles to pay their taxes, and complaints were rising. Reform was in the air, one way or the other.

In the Democratic wave election of 1974 that swept Brown into the governor’s office the first time, a two-thirds Democratic majority was elected to both the State Senate and Assembly. This meant that tax reform as defined by Democrats could be enacted, since the state constitution required (and still does) a two-thirds super-majority to raise or reform taxes.

Willie Brown, the smartest politician I ever met in 50 years, was Speaker of the Assembly; he heard the cries of his constituents and devised a plan for such reform. Under his proposal, the tax rate on private homes would be lowered to provide relief and the rate would go up slower in the future. Business property would continue to be taxed at the market rate, and would rise as the market rose. Brown had the votes for this in the Assembly, and the Democrats in the Senate were close to having them. All that was needed was for the governor to embrace the idea and call for support from the conservative Central Valley Democrats in the Senate, giving them the protection of his popularity so they could do the right thing.

Jerry was too busy talking about “new ideas” and finding ways to demonstrate that “small is beautiful.” Those not on the governor’s staff soon learned that his eyes would glaze over whenever the subject of property tax reform came up.

Come the elections of 1976, the 2/3 Democratic majority in the Senate was lost, but only by a few votes, and this was in the day where there were still Republicans in California who could add 2 and 2 and get 4 on consecutive attempts, so there was still a 2/3 vote for such reform, if the governor would provide cover by taking ownership of the idea.

Following his first dalliance with Presidential politics, Jerry went off to tour Africa with Linda Ronstadt.

In the meantime, a far right whack job named Howard Jarvis was campaigning across the state to lower all property taxes radically for everyone, homeowners and businesses alike. Frustrated homeowners signed the petitions, and the accounting departments of every company that owned property in the state went to their CEOs and pointed out the windfall to come. The corporations began supporting Jarvis and the Great California Taxpayer’s Revolt was born.

Proposition 13 was voted into the state constitution in 1978 by a margin bigger than Brown’s re-election totals. Things have never been the same since.

The result, 34 years later, is that homeowners property taxes have gone up from those 1978 levels by many times. That’s because the average home in California is sold every five years, and on sale, the home is reassessed in value at the market rate. There is one set of property owners, however, who are still paying the 1978 rates on 1978 assessments of property value: corporations, the only property owners who hardly ever sell what they own.

Before Proposition 13, business paid the majority of property taxes. Today homeowners pay the majority of property taxes. Local government on all levels has been gutted. In the face of this and the loss of income taxes stemming from the Great Recession, and the drop in property taxes as homeowners seek reassessment of their now-less-valuable homes, California has finally arrived at the state we find ourselves in.

In the election of 2010, after seven years of the failed governorship of Arnold Schwarzenegger, anyone with any knowledge of the facts knew that someone with some good ideas of how to resolve the fiscal crisis, who would find a way around the grand canyon of the partisan divide between Democrats and the Party of No that now passes for the California Republican Party, would need to occupy the governor’s office and bring the leadership that had been lacking for over 30 years to solve the problem.

So who did we elect?

Jerry Brown. The guy whose failure to lead to begin with was the cause of the problem.

The irony of the situation is obvious to any Democrat who knows the facts. The problem is no Democrat in California wants to admit the facts are indeed facts. And so we all now circle the drain, while Brown flails away at the monster no one wants to remember he created.

Will the last person to leave this sinking ship please open the seacocks to put the poor old lady out of her misery?

[Thomas McKelvey Cleaver is an accidental native Texan, a journalist, and a produced screenwriter. He has written successful horror movies and articles about Second World War aviation, was a major fundraiser for Obama in 2008, and has been an activist on anti-war, political reform, and environmental issues for almost 50 years. Read more articles by Thomas Cleaver on The Rag Blog.]

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