The basic reason Californians are about to defy their state's political establishment by voting themselves $7 billion in instant tax relief can be found in the instinctive response by the politicians to that act of revolt.
When the polls last week clearly showed that the state constitutional amendment to radically reduce property taxes was pulling well ahead in next Tuesday's vote, state legislators and state officials huddled privately to ponder these questions: Can we go to court immediately to set aside the vote? Can we get a new amendment on the November ballot to partially undo the work of this one? Can we adopt new taxes next year to maintain government at its present level?
Those frantic responses reveal the dramatic split between the governors and the governed here as elsewhere in the nation. The people regard government as an oppressive burden that fulfills new legitimate needs; their rulers see government as the focus of modern life, whose far-flung operations must not be curtailed.
Because of that, the strategy against the tax amendment (sponsored by 75-year-old anti-tax active Howard Jarvis) threatening the people with diminished government services has gotten nowhere. "The people say: Good, go ahead, we can do without it," one worried Democratic assemblyman told us.
The events here thus constitute no less an anti-government revolt than an anti-tax revolt. The voters are sending a message of disapproval to the politicians, a message that may now be duplicated across the land.
Gray Davis, the usually perceptive political aide and campaign manager of Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., is almost surely wrong when he calls this "a fight between the haves and the have-nots," the "haves" for the tax relief, the "have-nots" against. On the contrary, the establishment - business, labor, the big newspapers, the academic community, civic groups and practically every important elected official - vigorously opposes the Jarvis amendment.
Big-business opposition to Jarvis is nearly universal. State Assembly Speaker Leo McCarthy recruited corporations with a combination of conditional business-tax benefits and "veiled threats" (as described by one corporate executive). The corporations think by feeding the crocodiles they will be the last to be eaten," Ronald Reagan, who last month endorsed the Jarvis amendment, told us.
In contrast, the amendment's hardcore support comes from lower-income homeowners who are going under because of oppressive taxes. Their ranks, oddly, are swelled by substantial numbers of school teachers and other government workers who are first and foremost taxpayers.
Assembly Majority Leader Howard Berman, Gov., Brown's right-hand an in the legislature, was stunned when a meeting attended by his supposedly liberal Jewish constituents in Los Angeles upbraided him for opposing the Jarvis amendment. State Sen. Bill Greene, a black Los Angeles legislator, told us he is astounded how many of his constituents are voting for the measure.
In 20 years of reporting political events here, we have seen no issue that so preoccupies Californians. Yet, the message is coming over slowly, if at all, to the ears of the state's rulers.
Assemblyman Kenneth Maddy, once considered the Republican with the best chance to beat Brown, totally misread the political climate and geared his campaign to oppose Jarvis. Mainly because of that, he enters Tuesday's gubernatorial primary a poor third.
An exception is Assembly Minority Leader Paul Priolo, the only official in high state office supporting the Jarvis measure. Priolo is no right-wing militant and scarcely even a conservative. He enraged the right in 1976 by supporting Gerald Ford over Californian Reagan. When we last talked here four months ago, he denounced the Jarvis amendment as mindless demagoguery.
But Priolo soon confronted the refusal of fellow legislators, including fellow Republicans, to translate the mammoth (variously estimated at $3.5 billion to $5-billion) state budget surplus into property-tax relief. To the amazement and contempt of colleagues, Priolo endorsed the amendment and has since become an ardent advocate of lowered property taxes and no new taxes to replace them. "It's a matter of getting your mind away from the Sacramento scene, where government is everything," he explained to us.
Jerry Brown, as quick to perceive shifts in public moods as any politician in America, was caught from behind by the Jarvis amendment as badly as conventional politicians. But as Jarvis approached victory at the polls, the governor last week gingerly backed away from the pro-government militancy of the rulers and sidled up to the anti-government passion of the ruled. That shift, with its national implications, will be the subject of our next column from here.