Marching on Sacramento


Angry parents, hundreds of them, met in Marina Middle School to demand an end to cuts in education.

Angry Muni riders, hundreds of them, jammed City Hall to oppose Muni fare hikes and service cuts.

Angry students from the University of California -- thousands of them -- will hold a huge event March 4th to push for better education funding and lower fees.

There’s something going on here -- because in every case, grassroots activists in huge numbers (numbers that dwarf the so-called Tea Party events) want to force the state of California to change its budget priorities. And they are starting to talk seriously about taxes.

The Republicans are pretty intransigent up in Sacramento. But if these groups -- the public school parents, the UC students, the transit users and the wide range of other middle-class folks who are sick to death of California’s budget mess and how it’s screwing them -- could start working together, we could see a powerful coalition emerging.

And what that coalition needs to do, among other things, is push for Assemblyman Tom Ammiano’s legislation to change Prop. 13 and Sen. Mark Leno’s efforts to allow a local vehicle license fee, and a Constitutional amendment to get rid of the two-thirds majority for budget approval and tax hikes.

The Republicans have all signed this no-new-taxes pledge and it’s going to be hard to move them. Any attempt to change Prop. 13 will be met with huge opposition from big business. I used to think that it was hopeless even to talk about that ... but maybe it’s not. Maybe if everyone who’s angry about government cuts understood that the only way to solve the problem in the end is to allow local government to raise money for the schools through property taxes, and allow state government to raise income taxes on the rich and impose taxes on big businesses, we’d be able to build a movement that could make some progress.

It’s worth thinking about.



You've been listening to your colleagues too much, Tim. It's absolutely not hopeless to talk about dismantling Prop. 13. It is BS -- and it's harmful -- when the press parrots mindlessly over and over again that Prop. 13 is the third rail...Prop. 13 is the third rail... Prop. 13 is the third rail...

In reality, most Californians today have no idea what Prop. 13 even is. Go out and ask some of them! Only individuals who were born before June 1970, lived in California in 1978 and were voters actually participated in that (June '78) election -- that's a tiny percentage of today's Californians. (I am one of them, and you probably are too, but we're a rarity.) And it's clear that very few people who weren't in California and following politics at that time have more than the faintest notion of the details.

I asked Mark Di Camillo of the Field Poll when I was blogging about this, and he confirmed that only a small percentage of people they ask have any idea what Prop. 13 is. The pollsters show those who say "what's that?" a brief description and then ask what they think. Well, that's clearly unsound -- and thus all those polls purporting to show that there's vast support for Prop. 13 are not valid. I later e-mailed Di Camillo to ask what percentage of people they ask are aware of what Prop. 13 was, and he didn't respond to that question. Perhaps it calls Field's credibility into question if the soundness of its poll results --and, for that matter, its procedures -- are challenged.

It is true that many people who have only the haziest notion about Prop. 13 do have the idea that their grandmas would be homeless without it. But I've had discussions with a number of people like that. It opens their eyes to learn about the parts of Prop. 13 that had nothing to do with keeping Grandma's property taxes affordable (and everything to do with the destruction of our state), and the fact that there were other options that would have kept a roof over Grandma's head without devastating our public services.

Google the "Overton Window," a political theory that my smart SFUSD-educated 19-year-old, a poli-sci wonk, turned me on to. In connection, here's an example of attitudes shifting on a political issue. Another 1978 ballot measure was a proposition that would have limited cigarette smoking in workplaces. This was outrageously radical at the time -- the state Labor Council even opposed it, and it was crushed like a butt in an ashtray. Later, I was employed until 1984 in a workplace hazy with cigarette smoke. At that time, no one would dare ask a co-worker to refrain from lighting up. I left to take another job for 1.5 years, working for a startup that began getting shaky, so in 1986 I returned to the previous workplace. By that time, the smokers were banished to the parking lot and the office was smoke-free. The Overton Window had shifted so that what was unthinkable in 1978 and still outside the realm of reality in 1984 had become policy in 1986.

Well, it's taking longer for the Overton Window to move on Prop. 13 -- largely because of the mindless press parroting "third rail...third rail... third rail," however. (In case you haven't noticed, this seriously pisses me off.) But it's happening. The Marina Middle School mob scene demonstrates it, and the March 4 protests will do so still more. Soon the Overton Window will shift far enough that SUPPORTING Prop. 13 will be the third rail that no politician dares touch.

Posted by Caroline on Feb. 26, 2010 @ 8:16 pm


You are correct that there is ignorance on Prop 13. But that goes both ways.

For instance, did you know that despite annual increases capped at 2%, the actual growth in total property tax revenues in CA was almost 10% per annum from 1980 to 1992? And over 5% since?

The reason revenues have increased far more than 2% pa is because properties get re-rated upon transfer, because of new build, because of property improvement re-ratings, and because of subdivisions e.g. condo conversions.

Prop 13 also fixed the wide and unpredictable disparities and fluctuations that existed prior to 1979, enabling householders to reasonable budget housing costs for the first time.

And don't forget that prior to 1979 some municipalities were DOUBLING their tax take from one year to the next. Hence the anger and the voter initiative.

There is no question in my mind that Municipalities would be doubling property tax rates now, if only they could. And States that don't have CA's sky-high income and sales taxes do just that. Property tax rates are 3% pa in "low-tax" Texas and New Hampshire. I believe Maine holds the record at 4% pa.

If San Francisco had a 3% property tax rate, then the average SF home would be paying nearly 2K per month. And if increases were then limited to just 2.4% pa (highly unlikely) that would rise to 4K per month by the time the average mortgage is repaid.

Posted by Tom Foolery on Feb. 27, 2010 @ 9:16 am

I don't oppose giving the homeowners of the '70s, and since, immediate relief from paying soaring taxes on their soaring assessments, Mr. Foolery. Prop. 13 was not the way to do it -- it was shortsighted and destructive, leading to the near-collapse of our state.

Most people also have no idea that it was Prop. 13 that established:

-- the extension of that tax relief to corporations, even though the corporate community -- recognizing the destruction that Prop. 13 would wreak on California -- largely opposed Prop. 13 back in 1978;
-- the undemocratic and paralyzing 2/3 supermajority requirement to pass the state budget;
-- the undemocratic 2/3 supermajority requirement to pass a local parcel tax;
-- and the undemocratic 2/3 supermajority requirement to pass a local bond issue, which was reduced to 55% in Prop. 39 in 2000 -- showing that Prop. 13 can be dismantled piece by piece

Most young homeowners DO recognize Prop. 13 as the reason they pay exponentially more taxes than their older neighbors on identical homes -- information they can and routinely do get conveniently online -- and that's another reason why it's hooey to continue to claim that Prop. 13 is popular.

Posted by Caroline on Feb. 27, 2010 @ 4:25 pm

The argument about Prop 13 can essentially be distilled into the two camps that divide America.

In the red corner, the idea that government should continually expand and extend its role in society, as is the case in Europe, with ever-increasing amounts of taxation required to fund it.

And in the blue corner, those who see America as a land of rugged, self-reliant , business-minded individualists, who believe in low taxes and small government.

The former hate Prop 13 as they want an unfettered right to tax anyone who they believe can afford to pay more, on the alter of providing "services". Think Sweden.

The latter love Prop 13, and feel that "starving the beast" is the only way to contain runaway spending and government. Think the heartland.

This fundamental ideological divide is irreconcilable by debate and rhetoric. So we must let the voters decide. And this gets to your final point about whether Prop 13 is popular. Is it? Isn't it? Who knows? The voters!

I am fine with another voter initiative on the subject. But with 65% of Californians owning a home and wanting some sense of security that their property taxes are budgetable and predictable, I'd place a reasonable bet that there is no mandate to dismantle it without corresponding reductions in and caps on the State Income and Sales taxes that have been allowed to rise so much to compensate for the lower Property taxes.

Posted by Tom Foolery on Feb. 27, 2010 @ 8:14 pm

Another way to define that debate is: "You're on your own" vs. "We're in this together."

But one reason that the "you're on your own" viewpoint is not sustainable is that the people who believe it actually need and demand public services as much as the most avid "we're in this together" liberals. Last year's Chronicle coverage of Modoc County -- where the residents view themselves as independent, rugged individualists while actually using the highest share of government-provided services of any county in the state -- demonstrates that amply. A philosophy based on magical thinking, delusion and/or sheer hypocrisy cannot stand.

Posted by CarolineSF on Feb. 28, 2010 @ 6:48 am

Sure, there are anomalies to the divide on both sides. After all, ten percent of San Franciscans voted for George Bush. So again, let the voters decide.

You said that young homeowners are frustrated at seeing their older and perhaps richer neighbors paying far less in property tax. Yet if you truly feel that is iniquitous then you presumably passionately oppose rent control, which creates a near-identical disparity in cities where it operates.

And even those young homeowners know that one day they will be old homeowners, and like the idea of not being a hostage to municipal misfortune.

As I said before, I think the voters might go for enhancements to Prop 13 that make it more equitable, while providing safeguards. And especially if there are corresponding reductions in what are the highest State income and sales taxes in the nation.

But few voters are willing to write their City or State a blank check. So, if you want Prop 13 gone, make us an offer. But don't expect us to roll over just because you want Stockton to be more like Stockholm. People in Stocktoon vote too, and nothing like the way you do.

Posted by Tom Foolery on Feb. 28, 2010 @ 7:42 am

The people in rural counties have a higher per capita spending because they have lots of state roads and the such with a small population, you need to read the whole article.

Self awareness is a two way street, some people in SF think they are live and let live and then feel entitled to tell you how to live your life for your own good, like a live and let live born again Christians.

Posted by glen matlock on Feb. 28, 2010 @ 7:57 am

It wasn't just roads,Glen. The Modoc Countians are on the dole in multiple ways, while claiming to be proudly independent and presumably deluding themselves that it's true. And it just shows how hollow, false and foolish the notion of "less government" really is, when those propounding it the loudest are actually making the highest use of government services.

Posted by CarolineSF on Feb. 28, 2010 @ 12:36 pm

According a recent article in the Sac Bee (I couldn't link it because I was having trouble with the spam filter), 43.3% of voters think that Prop. 13 should be "overhauled". It doesn't give specifics as to which aspects should be changed, though.

Posted by Matt Stewart on Feb. 28, 2010 @ 3:34 pm

Oh Caroline, I find it entertaining when farm subsidy up by your boots straps type's call for less government. But you are cherry picking. With such a small sampling you will have odd dichotomies. Rural areas use up lots of money per capita with roads and parks, and a some welfare dependent types.

It's no less funny than the average SF progressive who howls about government intrusion then demands more of it for their agenda, when something voluntary isn't authoritarian enough, such as voluntary recycling, they make it mandatory, for your own good. But don't ever tell them (you) how to live.

The left tries to have it both ways as much as anyone else.

I myself would love to see the fed cut subsidies to the city of SF as long as it insists it is fiercely independent and anti government with its illegal alien scheming.

Who is more hypocritical? The people who love government openly defying it?

Posted by glen matlock on Feb. 28, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

I can certainly pick out hypocrisy on the left (every so-called progressive with kids in elite, exclusive private schools, for example), but this isn't a contest.

The issue isn't calling out people for hypocrisy for its own sake. The issue is that the professed anti-government position cannot stand when those who profess to be anti-government are actually extremely dependent on the government. Sooner or later that position will collapse.

I'm not cherry-picking; I'm using a particular example that was recently spotlighted in a manner that was convenient to cite. I was at one of the town hall meetings on health care last summer and heard people yelling about not letting the government take over their Medicare, so the disconnect (a very polite term for those severely challenged when it comes to clarity on the concept and consistency between their views and their actions) is not limited to the government-service-sucking Modoc Countians.

Posted by Caroline on Feb. 28, 2010 @ 5:06 pm

Caroline, I agree that most people don't know what Prop. 13 is. And by the way, I said I USED to think it was pointless to talk about changing it. I think the mood of the voters is changing.

It will still be tough to get a Constitutional amendment through. The big business folks will spend a fortune telling people that their taxes are going up -- and sadly, that message still resonates in California. But I think it's time to try.


Posted by tim on Feb. 28, 2010 @ 7:35 pm

Did you know (or remember) that big business largely opposed Prop. 13 in 1978, Tim? The business community predicted -- correctly, of course -- that it would do massive harm to California. I struggle a bit now picturing the corporate community being that responsible and ethical, but I'm willing to give them a chance!

OK, you're off the hook. Next time I see any local journalists referring to Prop. 13 as the "third rail," though, I plan to march into their office (security guards no prob for a graying middle-aged PTA mom) and slap them.

Seriously, the generation that's moving into leadership and influence now is the generation that has seen only the devastation wrought by Prop. 13. The generation that brought it to us (my grandparents' generation (b. 1900-1920 or so), has gone to that low-taxes-less-government haven in the sky. The remaining blustering "strangle the government" diehards are going to be huddled out in the cold, where they'll probably be begging some public agency to give them taxpayer-funded coats.

Posted by Caroline on Feb. 28, 2010 @ 8:28 pm

The poll citing a 43% approval rate for "overhauling" Prop 13 appears to indicate that repoeal is a non-starter. And it should be since it consists of various components, and few people like all of them. The 2/3 requirement to pass a State Budget is different from a 2/3 requirement for a parcel tax.

And with 57% presumably being happy with Prop 13, it cannot be repealed even if a straight majority were all that is required.

I'd like to see a bi-partisan effort to remove some of the anomalies of Prop 13. But I'd want it to be broadly tax-neutral i.e. any increased Prop Tax to be offset by reductions in what are the highest State Sales and Income Taxes in the nation.

A broader, more balanced tax base is preferable to different beggar-thy-neighbor policies.

But meanwhile, Prop 13 is the one decent protection that the average Joe has against unaffordable tax hikes. Third rail or not, it will endure in some form or other, because a majority of the voters like it

Posted by TomFoolery on Mar. 01, 2010 @ 8:34 am

It's not true that voters support Prop. 13, Mr. Foolery, since a high percentage of voters don't even know what it is. And that renders polls on the issue completely unsound.

But I agree that it won't simply be "repealed." It will be dismantled, piece by piece. That has already begun, since Prop. 39 in 2000 removed one piece, reducing the 2/3 supermajority formerly required to pass a local bond measure to 55% percent.

Posted by Caroline on Mar. 01, 2010 @ 2:49 pm