As Proposition 13 approaches its 39th birthday, it is still subject to the same dishonest attacks in the media that were used against it when it was on the ballot in 1978. Proposition 13 was one of the first victims of “fake news.”
“The bigwigs in labor and business went all out to defeat 13,” said its principle author, Howard Jarvis. “They tried to outdo one another in issuing doomsday prophecies about what passage of 13 would mean.” The media slavishly supported the exaggerated and dishonest claims, often endorsing them through editorials and by giving prominent placement to negative stories on the tax revolt.
The politicians, including Gov. Jerry Brown, and government agencies from top to bottom weighed in. Here is a typical example: Before the election, Alameda County Transit told the public that passage of Prop. 13 would result in the termination of 80 percent of its 2,000 employees. Two months later, the Fremont-Newark Argus reported on the aftermath of the passage of Proposition 13, “To date, no one in the district has been laid off and officials now believe there will be no massive layoffs.” The paper added that three local fire districts that anticipated losing one-half to three-fourths of its staff, had not lost a single firefighter to Prop. 13.
When the scare tactics were rejected by the public, some media attacked Prop. 13 sponsors Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann with false stories. Two weeks before the election, the Monterey Peninsula Herald editorialized that the public had “been so outrageously deluded by a pair of slick Southern California real estate operators.” The Herald was 0-for-2. Gann was from Sacramento, which Herald editors should know is in Northern California, and neither man owned any California real estate except for their own homes.
A month before the June 6 election, the Los Angeles Times repeated the claims of Prop. 13 opponents in a lengthy editorial in which the lies were treated as facts: “Los Angeles County would eliminate all of the Fire Department’s paramedic units, could close half of the 129 fire stations. It would close half of the county’s 93 libraries. … More than 30,000 county employees would be laid off. The city of Los Angeles is considering the dismissal of 2,152 police officers and the closing of six stations. More than 1,000 firefighters would be cut, and 56 stations would be shut down. … The prospect for Los Angeles schools is even darker. More than 18,000 teachers would be laid off.”
The same editorial in the Times included the following statement in italics: “Vote yes on Proposition 13 and send a message to tens of thousands of teachers, librarians, firefighters, police officers, sanitation workers and public-health specialists that you can safely dispense with their services.”
Howard Jarvis commented, “It was tough having 90 percent of the media against us.”
Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Freidman summarized the fake news campaign against Prop. 13 in his column in Newsweek several weeks after the overwhelming passage of the measure: “Despite the use of scare tactics including notices to teachers of automatic dismissal on passage of Jarvis-Gann [Prop. 13], advance local budgets threatening drastic cuts in police and fire protection, and whatever other portents of catastrophe desperate feeders at the public trough could devise, the public refused to be bamboozled this time, as they had so often before while watching taxes mount and government services deteriorate. This time, the scare tactics simply produced a backlash.”
But the beat down of Prop. 13 goes on. Some years ago, a newspaper editorial asked if Prop. 13 was responsible for a measles epidemic saying it may have limited the availability of vaccine. A national publication suggested that O.J. Simpson’s acquittal of murder charges was due to the tax limiting measure because prosecuting attorneys may not have been paid enough.
More recently, a column by a West Coast writer published in the New York Times claimed that one of the reasons that Los Angeles is becoming a “third world” city is reduced funding for education caused by the tax revolt that passed Prop. 13. As is typical, the writer ignores the fact that California now spends 30 percent more per pupil, in inflation adjusted dollars, than the amount spent just prior to the passage of Prop. 13 — a time when both liberals and conservatives agree that California schools were among the best in the nation.
Today, those who want to bring down Prop. 13 are a little more clever with their fake news. We are seeing claims, that the media delights in repeating, that Prop. 13 has caused the housing shortage, that Prop. 13 only helps the wealthy, and, of course, that Prop. 13 is responsible for our poor performing schools, even when our teachers are the third-highest paid in all 50 states.
Taxpayer advocates in California are still dealing with “fake news” as they have for nearly 40 years. It is doubtful that that battle will end anytime soon.
Jon Coupal, President, Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.