Proposition 13 & Ungovernable California

02/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"You haven't lived until you've died in California." -- Mort Sahl

The Los Angeles Times wants to know, "Can anyone govern California?"

There's a one-word answer. The answer is no.

The state is too big and the competing interests so conflicted that it lies beyond the ability of government to reconcile those interests in behalf of a common good. The Bay Area is not the North Coast, the Great Central Valley is not Southern California, and even within those divisions are sub-divisions, significant in both composition and competition.

Edmund G. "Pat" Brown was the greatest governor in California history, but he was voted out of office 43-years ago. He lost to Ronald Reagan, a one time Hollywood actor and spokesman for 20 Mule Team Borax, a multi-purpose cleaner.

Governor Brown lost despite his administration's achievements in higher education, water, highways, parks, hospitals, and mental health clinics; attainments no governor, either before Pat Brown's coming or after his leaving, have come close to matching..

Since then it's been a downward spiral. Not because Governor Brown's successors were incompetent, but because the state grew from 19 million in 1966, the last year of Pat Brown's administration, to 38 million today; growth so dramatic it overwhelmed the ability of Brown's successors to respond to the ever-increasing political, social, economic, and cultural divisions of the "Golden State."

More recently we went from one governor, Gray Davis, with little public persona to another, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is public persona writ large. But beyond their striking personality differences, they hold this in common -- neither could govern.

Most of California's troubles began, ironically, under the Great Reformer, Hiram W. Johnson, who took office in 1910 when the state's population was 2.3 million. He was elected on a platform to end corporate control of Sacramento, to stop the lock Southern Pacific Railroad and other moneyed interests had on the State Legislature.

Johnson, a member of the Lincoln-Roosevelt League, a progressive Republican movement, brought sweeping changes by establishing Constitutional amendments for cross-filing (politicians could run without declaring party affiliation), the initiative, referendum, and recall systems, which greatly altered the paradigm of California politics.

Johnson's reforms gave Californians direct democracy, the ability to bypass non-functioning state and local governments.

But those changes, while significant and necessary, are now at the center of the state's dysfunction.

Today the state's budget is hemorrhaging and is predicted to reach $42 billion unless Governor Schwarzenegger and the Democratic controlled legislature can agree on budget cuts and tax increases to remedy the budget's staggering shortfall.

But at its core this perennial problem has its roots in the reforms brought by Hiram Johnson 98 years ago -- specifically the initiative process.

The initiative process made possible Proposition 13 and its subsequent passage was the single greatest political and governance calamity to ever befall California.

The momentum in 1978 for the People's Initiative to Limit Property Taxation, as Proposition 13 was officially known, began when the state legislature and Governor Jerry Brown failed to agree on property tax reform. Homeowners were angry and ready for rebellion.

This volatile situation saw the rise of two of the most unlikely reformers in California history. Their names were Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann.

Jarvis, a cigar smoking, vodka drinking Mormon from Magna, Utah (I assume he was out of fellowship), came to California in 1930, oddly enough at the suggestion of Earl Warren (later California governor and Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court). Jarvis ran as a Republican for the U.S. Senate and for mayor of LA (several times), but lost. It appears he never met a tax he didn't hate. Gann, a quiet, a somewhat self-effacing gentleman from Arkansas, move to California in 1935. He settled in Sacramento and founded the "People's Advocate."

In style Jarvis was a blowhard, Gann his antithesis; but both had a common distrust of government and loathed taxes. In that shared affinity they would lead the fight for property tax reform and before they were done, the political establishment of California would be rocked to its foundation -- and 31-years later it is still rocking.

Proposition 13 was challenged in the courts. Ultimately it wound up before the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1992 would rule, in an 8-1 decision, the people's initiative "constitutional."

Majority opinion or not I've always believed the Court's decision was deeply flawed -- having neither fairness nor commonsense.

The court's decision meant anyone owning a home before 13 would have their property tax basically frozen. The decision was extraordinarily beneficial to some at the expense of many; it denied local government desperately needed revenues and threw disproportionately the burden of property taxes on post-13 homeowners.

How is it fair if one homeowner pays $500 annually in property tax assessment and the next-door neighbor pays $3,750 for a home of comparable value? You can't stretch the definition of "fairness" that far to have it fit the Supreme Court's decision.

The Court's ruling was inherently discriminatory. Does the Court err? It errs in matters both large and small; it errs in matters of both law and morality. Did you ever read the Court's decision in the infamous Dred Scott case? Yes, a very different issue at a different time in our history, but one that should forcibly remind us the Supreme Court of the United States is capable of grievous, even monumental error -- as it most assuredly was when it ruled Proposition 13 legal.

The Supreme Court is an institution comprised of fallible men and women, and seldom has its fallibility been more evident than when if found Proposition 13 constitutional.

Proposition 13 has become famously the third rail of California politics. Politicians are warned, "Touch it and you die." Few dare take it on. Of course the pols complain loudly about it in private, but remain publicly silent; they know it's killing our state, but the politics of staying in office is more greatly valued than acts of moral redemption.

But if California is to recover some element of sanity, if it is to stave off terminal budget defaults, if we are to heal the brokenness of local government, the government responsible for providing police and fire protection, for keeping libraries and parks services available, for keeping infrastructure in place and adequate water supply, then Proposition 13 must be reversed. The inequality in property taxes is wrong -- and it has undermined our state.

In 2009 who will rise to champion the overthrow of Proposition 13? Anyone? Anyone who still believes in the American ideal of fairness and justice? Anyone?

Camus wrote, "I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice." But as long as Proposition 13 is the law there will be no justice in California.

George Mitrovich is a San Diego civic leader. He can be reached at