THE WEEK

Meg Whitman’s use of the measure as a weapon against Poizner in the GOP race for governor recalls the politics of 1978, the year the initiative passed.

By Cathleen Decker

February 28, 2010

Proposition 13 made its return to electoral politics last week, proving anew the continued political heft of the 32-year-old measure.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., named for the long-deceased champion of the property tax-limiting proposition, gave its imprimatur to Meg Whitman’s campaign for governor. Though not necessarily surprising, the news dealt another blow to Whitman’s opponent in the race for the Republican nomination, Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner, who has been grasping for momentum for weeks as Whitman has filled the airwaves with advertisements.

Her television ads turned negative last week, with Whitman teeing off on past Poizner positions. Among other things, she accused him of trying to undercut Proposition 13 by backing a measure that allows schools to pass bonds with 55% of the vote, instead of two-thirds.

Poizner responded by saying the ads smacked of “desperation” — even though Whitman leads him in every public pre-primary poll.

The Howard Jarvis organization endorses candidates most political years. But this year features two once and future oddities.

In 1978, as now, the political environment swirled with grass-roots anger; Jarvis could be the psychic grandfather to the “tea partyers.” And the Democratic governor who first opposed Proposition 13, then embraced it with a convert’s zeal, is likely to be the Democratic nominee for governor again this year.

Jerry Brown had been governor for less than a full term when Proposition 13 hit the ballot in June 1978. He was running for reelection that November. Like many other establishment politicians, including future governors (and Republicans) George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson, he feared that by sharply curtailing property taxes, the measure would starve government. A “rip-off,” he was quoted as calling it.

But when it passed by a 2-1 margin, Brown became such an advocate, so quickly, that other Democrats railed that he had become Jarvis’ best advocate. “Government spending must be held in check,” he said days after the election. “We must look forward to lean and frugal budgets.”

Two weeks later, Brown was asserting that the vote was a ratification of the “era of limits” — his slogan earlier in his term.

“I would say that the mood is not all that much different,” Brown said at the time. “The concept of limitations and the concept that we’re in an era of limits has been ratified by 65% of the people.”

Evelle Younger, the Republican nominee challenging Brown, was left to grumble that “he sounds like the author of the initiative.”

Lost in the governor’s pirouette, Younger argued, was the fact that one reason voters were so angry was that the governor had been piling up billions of dollars in surplus even as their property taxes rose. His complaints had little effect. In November, the anger lanced, Brown defeated Younger by almost 20 points.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. now claims a membership of 200,000 Californians. They are dedicated to keeping in check any efforts to weaken Proposition 13. Given the reaction of voters and politicians alike, they have little to worry about.

In poll after poll, Californians defend Proposition 13 and bridle at proposals to change it. In a lengthy survey taken at the measure’s 30th anniversary, the Field Poll found that although fewer than 40% of voters were very familiar with the proposition, they overwhelmingly wanted it retained.

The sentiment was bipartisan: Only 1 in 10 Republicans said they would allow adjustments of the formula for home property taxes; only 2 in 10 Democrats and nonpartisan voters would allow that.

No ambitious politician has dared to mention its revocation, and that would include Brown, who is expected to formally enter the governor’s race within days. (During the 2003 recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger threatened to force his chief economic advisor, investor Warren Buffett, to do 500 sit-ups if Buffett repeated his assertion that Proposition 13 needed adjustment).

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