Jarvisism - A Tale Told By An Idiot
George Skelton has a punishingly absurd column today. He has in the past recognized that Prop. 13, and more importantly the Trojan horse of the 2/3 requirement for revenue hikes embedded inside it, has foisted much of the problems upon the state that it now faces. He recognizes that again here. But he then goes on to suggest that Arnold Schwarzenegger should take the attitude of "born-again tax cutter" Jerry Brown and treat our current "tax revolt" (which he takes as gospel from the results of last week's special election) by slashing services for all manner of struggling Californians. Skelton hints at a tactic of merciless cuts as a means to show the public the painful reality of Howard Jarvisism, but really he just sort of agrees with the conventional wisdom, which he plays a role in setting, that the voters rejected tax increases of any kind and now the Governor must do the serious thing of cutting all manner of state spending.
Let's take a look back in time and be clear about who's driving this conventional wisdom. California's political observers have been stuck in a post-June 1978 mindset for the past thirty years, scared to death of the terrifying spectre of Howard Jarvis, himself a bundle of contradictions. He was a Mormon who drank vodka. An anti-government crank who nonetheless ran for US Senate and Mayor of Los Angeles. A supposed defender of homeowners when at the time of Prop. 13 he was employed by the Los Angeles Apartment Owners Association. Jarvis was a liar and a fool. In the ballot argument for Prop. 13 in 1978, he claimed that school funding would not be affected by the amendment, and responded to the possibility of library services being cut by saying that "63 percent of the graduates are illiterate, anyway.” He had a disdain for the average Californian, and probably took up the mantle of property tax revenue caps after seeing his home at 515 North Crescent Heights Boulevard in Los Angeles increase in value from $8,000 to $80,000 in 35 years.
Prop. 13 addressed one specific problem - property tax assessments were growing faster than wages. But grafted onto the measure designed to slow down that growth were a series of proposals - shifting the balance of power from local to state government, capping commercial property with residential, and establishing the 2/3 requirement for revenue - that have gradually but steadily eroded the quality of life that previously made the state the envy of the nation and the world. In 1978 the state had enough of a surplus to paper over the immediate effects of Prop. 13. The measure was practically designed to drain that, and put an end to effective governance in the state. Today, businesses and homeowners benefit from public investment in infrastructure - sewers, roads, electrical lines, freeways, mass transit - without having to contribute to the improvements. And to get a true sense of how that attitude of, basically, selfishness, can be traced back to Jarvis himself, read this flashback from the 1979 budget crisis, and the anti-tax champion's march on Sacramento.
Into the volatile political atmosphere parachuted Howard Jarvis, the irascible co-author of Prop. 13 and the cranky embodiment of the tax cut movement. Jarvis and his posse came to Sacramento on June 7, the one-year anniversary of the measure; 30 years later, the episode offers a look back in time at some hints of what was to follow.
Jarvis, a burly and profane spud of a man, had come to deliver 150,000 computer-generated letters sent by tax-cut supporters to warn the Legislature, “We’re not going to let anybody get away with a new plot to circumvent Proposition 13.”
One target of his ire was Assembly Bill 8, which radically restructured California’s system of public finance and sent $5 billion from Sacramento to local jurisdictions. Still in effect in 2009, it cast the framework for many of today’s structural budget problems, by putting the state in the permanent business of financing schools, cities and counties.
Surrounded on the east steps of the Capitol by dozens of boxes containing the letters, Jarvis accused then-Speaker Leo McCarthy of a “plot” to undercut Prop. 13, and got into a beef with a reporter who asked him to be specific about the alleged conspiracy.
As a daily report of the incident had it: “Jarvis snapped angrily: ’I’m not going to list all of them. I don’t carry the bill numbers around in my pocket.’” [...]
As Jarvis spoke, a group of mothers who’d come to Sacramento to lobby for more spending for pre-schools began shouting at him: “What about the schools? They’re ending programs to help,” a woman from Azusa hollered.
“That would be your problem, not mine,” Jarvis yelled back. “It’s absolutely not so. Prop. 13 didn’t have any effect on the schools at all.”
Jarvis then walked into the Capitol, where he and his backers dropped off boxes of letters in legislative offices. All went well until he called on Assemblyman, later Congressman, Doug Bosco, who was meeting with a county supervisor and three fire chiefs from his district.
“We were discussing why there isn’t enough money to put out the fires,” Bosco said later. “In walked Howard Jarvis and I said, ‘Good, you can explain it to them.’”
“Jarvis insisted that reduced property tax revenues allowed by Proposition 13 were more than sufficient to finance essential services,” a future Calbuzzer reported. “When the chiefs asked Jarvis what specific cuts he proposed, he told them, ‘that’s up to you,” which set off “a heated exchange that lasted 10 or 15 minutes before Jarvis left…in a bit of a huff.”
“A short time later, Jarvis wandered by Governor Brown’s office, where he received a considerably warmer reception.”
Howard Jarvis had no interest in governing and even less interest in people. He treated budgeting only in the abstract, without detail and certainly without any projection of a human face on the consequences of his actions. He was a miserable, selfish old coot.
Only in California can this man be transformed from guy-shouting-at-the-end-of-the-bar status into a figure worthy of any respect, both by politicians like Jerry Brown and the political media. The assumption is that he led this grand movement that persists to this day, but his stature only remains because so few dared to challenge him on the basic facts. We have a government with the structural architecture of that selfish old man, but a population that simply doesn't think that way. Yet nobody has the courage or the leadership to actually point out that architecture, the main stumbling block to returning California to anything approaching fiscal sanity. Howard Jarvis, like a headless Ozymandias statue surveying a wrecked land, became a king because of the vacuum of leadership into which he stepped. His reputation is unassailed, and we are all poorer for it.