Thirty years ago this month, California and the nation were gripped by recession as drivers sat in long lines to buy expensive gas – and Sacramento bogged down in political warfare over the state budget.
Ushering in the Capitol’s modern era of financial dysfunction, the budget that year didn’t pass until July 13. At the time, it was an historic delay in missing the deadline to start a new fiscal year, an extraordinary event (back when) decried by editorialists around the state.
Then, as now, the Legislature was dominated by Democrats, and although Gov. Jerry Brown was of the same party, fierce battles raged between the two branches of government, between the two parties and between the two legislative houses, all focused on familiar issues – taxes, state spending for schools and local government and the governor’s proposal for a “rainy day” reserve.
Proposition 13 was just a year old in the spring of 1979, and the political and fiscal decisions with which the Capitol sought to manage – and to blunt – the impact of the $7 billion in statewide property tax cuts were still unfolding amid heated debate.
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.’”
Among those watching in the crowd was Gov. Brown, who had strolled out of his office “to see what Howard’s doing.” Brown, who had swiftly abandoned opposition to Prop. 13 after passage, offered a few, lyrical pro-tax cut pearls to reporters before Jarvis showed up.
“As yet, the spirit of reality has not penetrated under the Golden Dome,” he said.
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.”
The more things change…