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Weekly Alibi Land, Laws and California Dreamin'

By Todd Gibson

MAY 18, 1998: 

Peter Schrag's Paradise Lost

California, 1978. For complex reasons, property taxes are skyrocketing, threatening to drive people with fixed incomes out of their homes. The state government, paralyzed by partisan bickering, fails to offer any relief. Enter Howard Jarvis, a California political mastermind described as "the last angry man," who succeeds in putting Proposition 13 on the ballot. (California's constitution allows for "initiatives," a process by which proposed laws are voted upon by the people.) Proposition 13, an initiative calling for property tax values to be frozen at 1975 levels, passes into law with a simple majority vote, despite the protests of government, business and consumer groups.

Was this a hard-won populist success or the work of an unchecked majority? Peter Schrag addresses this and other pertinent questions in his new analysis of recent political history, Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's Future. And there may be lessons here for New Mexicans to learn as well.

Schrag has been observing California politics for the last 19 years, supervising the Editorial Page of the Sacramento Bee, studying and commenting on political trends with his easy, disarming intelligence. And basically, he blames the deterioration of California and its social services on Prop. 13. By capping property taxes and preventing the reassessment of property value, the initiative effectively blocked local government's main source of revenue. These limitations were not fully felt until the recession of the late 1980s, but it is now painfully obvious that California's local governments lack the money to fund not only their schools but also their roads and public spaces as well. California's universities, once the pride of a nation, famed for being free for in-staters, now must charge tuition under an "Educational Fee" euphemism.

How could this happen? Schrag believes the blame lies in the initiative process. Jarvis was able to manipulate growing panic over rising taxes to fuel the support for Prop. 13--an easy task, since nothing is built into the initiative process that allows for meaningful debate over the implications of the proposal. No changes to the initiative are allowed, no recourses available after the vote and no process, short of another initiative, allows for adaptation of the proposal once it's passed. It is hard to believe that California voters would have voted for Prop. 13 if they knew the consequences of the path they were taking.

But another factor comes into play. Schrag points out that the voters of the state--mainly rich whites--are increasingly disinterested in funding programs that they don't consume. Since two-thirds of the student population in public schools will be non-white by 2000, the trend of crumbling social services could continue until more minorities speak out and vote. One thing is certain: Prop. 13 has created a muddle of local, county and state finances with no easy solution in sight.

So what does this spell for New Mexico? Well, some aspects of New Mexico's current political landscape eerily echo California's: Gov. Gary Johnson is a direct political descendant of the anti-tax ideology popularized by Jarvis. The legislative process in constantly gridlocked. And a property tax crisis may loom in our future as more and more transplants find their way to the Land of Enchantment. Many other factors in New Mexico--the high percentage of Hispanic voters being the strongest--make more direct correlations difficult to make, but still interesting to consider.

Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it. Peter Schrag has done his part to educate people about California's mistakes. Let's hope people are listening. (The New Press, cloth, $25)

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