Looking Back at Howard Jarvis and Prop 13

As California voters consider a big change to Prop 13, this documentary is a must watch.

Before the Reagan Revolution, before the Tea Party, before Trumpism, there was Howard Jarvis and his Tax Revolt. In 1978, the cranky septuagenarian’s successful Proposition 13 campaign created a new template for American conservatism, rooted in resentment, distrust of government, and anger, that resonates to this day. 

The First Angry Man, airing Friday, Oct. 16 at 8 p.m. on KQED — and available for rent right now on Amazon and iTunes — is fascinating history all on its own. But the film, directed by Jason Andrew Cohn and produced by Camille Servan Schreiber, also tells Jarvis’ story at an opportune moment.

Contemporary viewers will recognize much of Jarvis’ style and substance in President Trump. But even more relevant, for California voters at least, is the opportunity to learn more about Proposition 13 just days before deciding on Proposition 15, the biggest change ever proposed for the infamous property tax law. 

The Tax Man

Howard Jarvis was a lapsed Mormon from Utah who moved to Los Angeles and became a successful businessman. One of his longest-running jobs was working as a lobbyist for the Los Angeles Apartment Association, a landlord interest group. But his real passion was always politics — an arena where he never lacked for ambition. 

In his first-ever political campaign, in 1962, Jarvis ran to the right of incumbent U.S. Senator Thomas Kuchel, attempting to channel the anti-communist fervor of the John Birch society against his fellow Republican. Jarvis’ campaign for the Senate failed, as did his multiple bids for Los Angeles mayor, but these misadventures helped raise his profile, and that of his pet issue: taxes. 

When Jarvis began fighting taxes, particularly property taxes, in the early ’60s, his mood didn’t exactly match that of most Californians. At that time, residents of the fast-growing state were willing to accept high taxes for world-class public services and good jobs. Governor Pat Brown, known as the Great Builder, massively expanded the free UC and CSU systems, and presided over the construction of much of the state’s current freeway and water infrastructure.  

The center of attention (Photo: KCET)

But as the ’70s wore on, the dynamism and optimism of Pat Brown’s California began to wear off. Oil crises and inflation, smog and traffic were making life harder for middle class Californians, while Vietnam and Watergate eroded public trust in government. When Pat’s son Jerry became governor for the first time in 1975, fiscal responsibility and slow growth became Sacramento’s overarching ethos. 

Meanwhile, inflation combined with rising home values were making it harder for many Californians to afford their property taxes. In 1970s Caliifornia, the term “October surprise” referred not to the state of the President’s physical and mental health, but to that year’s property tax assessment. Jarvis finally had the makings of a broad constituency for his anti-tax crusade. 

Leading up to the June 1978 election, Jarvis was able to gather three times more than the 500,000 or so signatures he needed to qualify Proposition 13 for the ballot. The 10 sentence law was remarkably simple, capping property taxes at one percent of the initial purchase price, and limiting increases to about two percent per year, unless a property changes hands. It also stated that future tax increases could only be approved by a two-thirds majority of the voters. 

‘Generational Warfare’ 

Rising property taxes really were a big problem in California, especially for older people on a fixed income. But Jarvis and his supporters weren’t just concerned with keeping people in their homes; they also resented what the government was doing with their tax dollars. In the San Fernando Valley, the heart of Jarvis’ well-organized operation, white homeowners were deeply concerned about busing, immigration, and welfare abuse. 

Prop 13 was “a kind of declaration of generational warfare,” Manuel Pastor, professor of sociology at USC, says in the film. “It was the protection of the assets of older white Californians, just as a newer generation of Califonians of color were starting to arrive in our school system.”

During the campaign, Jarvis would frequently employ racist dog whistles in his public appearances. But his brash, unconventional style made for good TV, and local networks couldn’t wait to get him back on air. Despite his 75 years, Jarvis understood the cultural mood,  borrowing the catchphrase, “I’m mad as hell!” from the disgruntled news anchor Howard Beale in the hit 1976 film Network. 

State legislators knew property tax increases were a major problem, but they couldn’t get their act together to pass a tax reform bill in the legislative session before the June 1978 election when voters would have the chance to weigh in on Prop 13.

“The legislature was bitterly divided over how you should reform property tax,” says former Los Angeles Times journalist Bill Boyarsky. “There was no agreement. Countless bills were introduced.” 

The situation sounds a lot like the end of the 2020 legislative session, when legislators failed to pass major bills on housing and policing. 

Back in 1978, much of the blame was cast on Brown for failing to force the legislature into action. Critics felt Brown was too focused on his celebrity (he was dating singer Linda Rondstandt at the time), his inevitable presidential run, and his live-and-let-live political philosophy. Brown “didn’t twist arms,” and was “not a back room politician,” former California Governor and Brown-aid Gray Davis says in the film. 

Still, Prop 13 trailed badly in the polls for most of the lead up to the election. The prospect of a $7 billion hit to the state budget and mass layoffs of public employees were bitter pills. But in a last ditch effort, Jarvis convinced Los Angeles County to release its tax assessments early, on June 1, just a week before the election. The big increases, a harbinger of those about to hit the rest of the state, turned the tide of public opinion. 

Following this “June surprise,” Prop 13 passed by a margin of nearly two-to-one. 

The Fallout

Prop 13 immediately had a huge impact on California’s state budget, most notably in education. The state went from being above the national average in spending per pupil, to well below. UC tuition for California residents went from $630 in 1976 to $12,570 today. Prop 13 has also contributed to California’s housing crisis, giving city governments a strong financial incentive to approve commercial development, which generates sales tax revenue, over badly-needed residential development, which often costs cities more in services than it generates in taxes.

The ballot measure’s passage caused a sensation outside of the state, too. As the beginning of the Tax Revolt, Prop 13 inspired copycat legislation in several other states. Jarvis famously made the cover of Time magazine. National Republican leaders seized on the grassroots energy that Jarvis had generated in California, including Ronald Reagan, one of the few mainstream politicians who had supported Prop 13. As the 1980 election season heated up, Jarvis was overshadowed by the more palatable Reagan, who advanced many of the same ideas as Jarvis in a smoother, softer way. 

Jarvis’ Tax Revolt was “the beginning of what we can now recognize as a profound shift in the way most Americans look at government,” says Paul Pierson, a professor of political science at UC Berkeley. Government went from being seen as “a mechanism for helping to generate broad prosperity to one that takes from some people and gives to others.” 

It’s clearly a winning formula, one that’s been adopted by politicians across the political spectrum. To this day, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association continues to litigate virtually every tax measure passed in the state, and groups like Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform regularly get huge proportions of Congress to sign a pledge opposing all new tax increases. 

When it comes to Jarvis’ subtext, about undeserving minorities and immigrants, well, it’s not subtext anymore. Jarvis’ rhetoric was “just like the language of Donald Trump,” says Narda Zacchino, a longtime Los Angeles Times journalist. 

Splitting the Rolls

Also like Trump, Jarvis was able to take a populist message to run interference for big business: the biggest winners of Prop 13 were large, corporate property owners, like oil and utility companies, and the real estate trusts behind office and apartment buildings.

Fittingly, these commercial property owners (excluding apartment building owners) are the ones targeted by this year’s Proposition 15. The ballot measure would “split” the tax rolls, leaving residential property taxes as they are and eliminating Prop 13’s property tax freeze for commercial and industrial property owners with more than $3 million in property. Instead of only being reassessed once they’re sold, these properties would be reassessed every three years, ensuring that commercial properties will be taxed based on their current market value. Proposition 15 would generate as much as $12.5 billion annually for schools and municipal governments, at a time when both are facing devastating budget cuts. 

Of course, many business owners, including small businesses and restaurants, are not thrilled by the prospect of higher taxes, especially during such bleak economic times. In San Francisco and other Bay Area cities, there are several other tax measures on the ballot as well.

 Whatever happens with November’s tax measures — and the many other important races — The First Angry Man contains a timeless lesson about the role of government. When well-intentioned leaders abdicate their responsibility to confront the crises of the day, bad policies (and dangerous leaders) emerge to fill the vacuum. Today in California, fires, housing, policing, unemployment, the environment, and other issues are reaching crisis levels. If our leaders don’t act, there’s always the possibility that a Howard Jarvis-type might creep out of the Southland with a quick-fix and an easy answer.

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