YOU DON'T NEED any special economic insight to sense that people around the country are fired up over rising taxes, especially property taxes. But the most dramatic demonstration, the one that has state and local governments quaking - is in California. There hard-pressed taxpayers are being tempted to vote on Tuesday for a drastic "relief" measure. It is Proposition 13, also known as the "Jarvis-Gann Initiative" after the two citizens who led the petitions drive to put the proposal to the public. Its popular appeal is obvious, for it would mandate a big, fat tax cut - and never mind the fiscal consequences. While the message behind this movement has merit, the proposition as written constitutes a dangerously broad and sloppy fiscal restriction on responsible government.
Specifically, Proposition 13 would 1) set the maximum tax rate on property at 1 percent of the 1975-76 assessed value, 2) limit future property-tax assessments (on which the rates would apply) to 2 percent a year except in years when a house is built or sold and 3) require a two-thirds vote of the legislature for any new state taxes and two-thirds vote of "qualified electors" - whatever the courts take that to mean - for new local taxes. As a result, cities, counties and special regional districts would lose more than half of present property-tax revenues - some $7 billion.
The presumption here is that state would offset some of this loss with the surplus, currently $4 billion, that has resulted from revisions in the state income-tax brackets. The rest of the loss presumably would be offset by cuts of certain unspecified services, including billions of dollars now giong to California's public schools. So much for any significant local control; decisions on spending would be the state's.
Still, if Porposition 13 isn't a sensible formula for tax relief in California, the problem is a real one. Inflation and the tax assessors have sent real-estate-tax payments through the stratosphere while higher income-tax rates have been creating a surplus. There is a less radical and more specific proposal on the ballot - Proposition 8 - that could take effect only if approved and if Proposition 13 were defeated. Proposition 8 would reduce homeowners' property taxes by 30 percent and make up the difference from the state surplus, with owner-occupied dwellings taxed at a lower rate than industrial or commercial property. There's no knowing whether that approach will draw enough votes away from the drastic Proposition 13, but both the voter sentiment and the aftermath in California are sure to be closely watched by state and local governments everywhere.