It’s presidential primary time in the west this week but most Californians don’t give a hoot. A contest that in past years has aroused international heartburn is overshadowed this season by the ferocious scrap around Howard Jarvis’ Proposition 9. Jarvis, a boisterous 76-year-old with a face like a Californian mud slide, turned himself into a national folk hero two years ago with his Proposition 13. That measure slashed California property taxes by 57 per cent and knocked a $7-billion hole in
again, this time hoping to cut California income tax by 50 per cent.
Proposition 9, also known as Jarvis II or Jaws II, goes before voters this week and it’s a cliff-hanger, leading in the polls one week, losing the next. By cutting personal income taxes to half of 1978 levels, it would reduce state revenues by as much as $5 billion in one fell swoop, followed by an estimated $62 billion in the coming decade. Jarvis, a perennial right-wing gadfly who sniffs that Ronald Reagan “isn’t a real conservative,” considers this the most important test in California’s three-year experiment in tax reform—a movement that has inspired similar action in at least nine other states. What Jaws II would do in this spacious laboratory of a
state coffers. Now Jarvis is on the prowl state is thus of keenest national interest, especially since it is akin to what presidential front-runner Reagan threatens on a federal scale, with his phased-in tax rate cut of 30 per cent over three years.
The referendum is also a major test of California Governor Jerry Brown’s credibility in his home state. Once again, Zen devotee Brown is at loggerheads with Jarvis, and the doomsday rhetoric which failed to frighten voters away from Jarvis before is being trotted out again, albeit in cooler terms. More
in sorrow than in horror, a sombre Brown took his case to voters via television, begging them to remember that their tax dollar supported not only the incumbent but also the aged, infirm and mentally ill. Using pointer and charts to illustrate that Proposition 9 would benefit the rich while leaving only “crumbs” for the poor, he quoted at length from St. Matthew: “Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me ...”
Jarvis, whose talent for vituperation has been much exercised in recent weeks, called Brown’s approach “com-
post” and “a tired old scam.” Brown, he jeered, has been “a dead dodo politically” ever since “taking up with the Fonda/Hayden dog-and-monkey
show.” He was made to look foolish when Proposition 13 passed and the sky failed to fall, claimed Jarvis, and Proposition 9 would repeat the process.
But would it? This time around Californians are more cautious. A recession has arrived and the voters have seen the once-huge state budget surplus shrink to a humble $2.6 million. The surplus bailed out local governments and schools in 1978 and this time, if the tax cut gets the go-ahead, there might not be sufficient funds to support vital services. The University of California, for instance, threatens to raise its fees dramatically, wiping out any savings Proposition 9 might bring to parents who plan to put their offspring through college. Indeed, Jarvis I has already curtailed school and library budgets. “So?” roars Jarvis. “What’s the use of having books in libraries if kids can’t read them?” The educational establishment, he charges, is grabbing more and more money to perform an ever-worse job of teaching America’s children.
The battle cry of Jarvis’ supporters is that what Proposition 13 accomplished, its successor will do in spades. Tax wars will stimulate the economy, says Jarvis, help fight inflation and cut the fat from a bloated bureaucracy. Opponents of Jaws II respond that the state’s economy is so healthy there’s no stopping it, that the inflation rate (currently running at 18 per cent in California) has not been affected by 13 and that Proposition 9 is a rich man’s proposition. In fact, state tax analysts point out that a typical $12,000-a-year family would save only about $80 in taxes, while a $75,000-per-annum family would save $3,000. Says Brown: “The wealthiest 10 per cent of all taxpayers would get a $3billion tax break.”
Jarvis charges that Brown is betraying “the spirit of 13” with his $24-billion 1980-81 budget (up nearly 20 per cent on the last fiscal year). “It’s time,” he rumbles, “to send a new message to big government.” However, as of last week, polls suggested that Jaws II, which a month ago seemed a shoo-in, now lags in support by at least 10 per cent. And should it lose, Jarvis’ big mouth will be partly to blame. He has outraged many voters with public outbursts, usually scatological. The city of San Francisco, which opposed Proposition 13, was called a “—hole.” Elsewhere, an elderly woman who challenged Jarvis was told she belonged in a brothel.
But defeat would by no means signal the end of the Great American Tax Revolt. Jarvis, for one, has a sheaf of new tax tricks up his sleeve, to be released at a more propitious time. He also has
Reagan, former treasury secretary William Simon (a Reagan economic adviser) and other conservative fiscal gurus in his corner. His basic message—that big spenders in government will only resist temptation if given less to spend—has enduring appeal. But more than taxes are at stake this week. The question is: who runs California—the seventh most productive economy in the world—its elected officials or the septuagenarian ex-manager of the Los Angeles Apartment Association and his army of angry followers? Q
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