With some timely help from the opposition, a revolutionary effort to roll back property taxes has assumed a commanding 23-point lead and now seems assured of approval by California voters on Tuesday.
"A heavy tide is running in favor of Proposition 13, fueled by an incredible anti-government feeling," says traditionally cautious California pollster Mervin Field. "We're looking at a political earthquake that's going to have national implications."
Proposition 13, the brainchild of 75-year-old tax crusader Howard Jarvis, is a tax limitation initiative which would strike at the mainstay of schools and local governments in California by reducing property taxes by billions of dollars a year - to 1 percent of assessed value. If it passes, it is considered certain to be the forerunner of similar tax-limitation moves in other states.
Until recently, Proposition 13 held a lead so narrow it was within the margin of error of some polls, and the coalition of businessmen, labor unions and teachers opposing the initiative was optimistic that it could be beaten once voters realized they face a major reduction in government services.
Then, Los Angeles County Assessor Alexander H. Pope, an opponent of Proposition 13, responded to pressure from county supervisors who favored the measure. He released information about this year's assessment increases, which approximately doubled the tax bill for a third of the county's residents.
Faced with outraged protests, Pope announced a freeze on these assessments at 1977 levels - without any apparent legal authority to do so.
This produced an immediate law-suit by the State Board of Equalization, which has responsibility for seeing that equitable assessment practices are followed. It also generated protests from the other two-thirds of county residents who wouldn't benefit from the freeze.
Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., a staunch foe of Proposition 13, jumped into the act. With much fanfare, he proposed a statewide rollback on assessments only to withdraw his plan hurriedly when the legislature told him it would be impossible to approve a rollback before the June 6 election. Without legislative approval, such a rollback would be illegal.
The result of all this maneuvering has been to make voters feel that they are the victims of political trickery.
"Everybody was waiting for the scare story that would make people vote no," says pollster Field. "But the scare story that came out was the opposite - the huge assessment increases. This was compounded by the almost panicky reaction of Gov. Brown and others calling for the rollback of assessments in violation of the law."
The "California Poll" released by Field May 17 showed Proposition 13 leading by only three percentage points. But the final California Poll on the issue, released last night, put the initiative ahead 57 to 34 with 9 percent of voters undecided.
Other polls, both published and private, have shown similar results. These polls include one taken by the "No on 13 Committee," which found the proposition winning by 12 percentage points.
Opponents of the initiative took the unusual step of releasing the Poll because they were convinced that supporters of Proposition 13 merely want to "send a message" to politicians but don't actually want the measure to become law.
"Seventy-nine percent of those voting for Proposition 13 in our poll say they want to send a message," says Charles (Chuck) Winner, the campaign management consultant who is directing the No-on-13 campaign. "If they really stop and think about it, that message has already been sent and delivered."
The legislature and Gov. Brown responded to the "message" in March by passing a tax-relief bill which would be funded entirely out of a state surplus that in 1978 will be at least $3 billion.
The legislature-approved tax-relief measure also required a state constitutional amendment, which appears on Tuesday's ballot as Proposition 8. This measure would provide an estimated 35 percent relief for homeowners compared to the 60 percent relief promised by Proposition 13. Whatever happens to Proposition 8 at the polls, it is so written that it will be a dead letter if Proposition 13, also a constitutional amendment, is approved.
Jarvis and his supporters have scorned Proposition 8 as a last-ditch maneuver aimed at heading off Proposition 13 - an argument about which there is no serious dispute.
Field's latest poll shows a voter shift against Proposition 8 by Proposition 13 supporters, who apparently don't want to dilute the effect of their message by passing a lesser tax relief measure.
The confusion and panic that have characterized the campaign against Proposition 13 also applies to any attempt to assess its impact. State and local officials who, life Gov. Brown, were talkling of "chaos" a few weeks ago, now appear to be uncertain as to exactly what programs will suffer most if Proposition 13 is enacted. Brown has said he will try to "sensitively implement" the measure.
With an election coming in November, there is likely to be considerable legislative sentiment for using the existing state surplus of $3 billion to tide over the local governments for the remainder of the year. But in Los Angeles, city school district officials are already talking about canceling the entire summer school program if Proposition 13 passes, and there is general agreement that part-time recreation workers, many of them blacks or Mexican-Americans, will not be hired at all.
However, fiscal officials cannot even agree on the amount of revenue loss that Proposition 13 would cause. Opponents have consistently used a $7 billion revenue loss figure statewide, while Jarvis has used a $5 billion figure with assessed values rising rapidly in all metropolitan areas, it is conceivable that Jarvis could wind up being right.
When Proposition 13 was originally proposed, it was widely supposed that the legislature would rush in to make up any local tax loss by raising sales, income or corporation taxes. However, one provision of Proposition 13 would require a two thirds vote of the legislature to accomplish this and that isn't likely to happen in an election year.
Or, as one legislative aide put it, "the chances that we'll raise taxes in a year when the voters have approved the Jarvis amendment are roughly the same as that pigs will start flying around the state capitol."