When California voters approved Proposition 13 two weeks ago, the move was heralded widely as the shot heard round the land.
Within hours after the results were announced, politicians throughout the country were all but tripping over each other to introduce new measures that "responded to" the California mandate.
John Peterson, director of the Municipal Finance Officers Association, called Proposition 13 "a Frankenstein. It's a big green hulk emerging from the swamps of the West." Conservatives predicted a massive "tax revolt" across the nation.
Now that the dust is settling from the California explosion, it's becoming apparent that a good bit of the past month's hoopla may have been exaggerated.
In the first place, the vote over Proposition 13 was only the latest manifestation of taxpayer unhappiness to make itself visible in recent years - not the start of some previously unseen trend.
Second, while the California vote is certain to spur new economy measures in many states and localities, it doesn't appear likely to produce any really sweeping changes in present tax and spending levels.
Even the Boston Tea Party had its practical limitations.
In truth, whatever "revolt" may be emerging isn't just a recent phenomenon. Politicians regularly rediscover taxpayer frustration every election year. In 1972, Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace won credit for stumbling on a modern-day pocketbook issue by decrying high taxes and excessive government spending.
So did Donald Reagan in 1973. And Jimmy Carter in 1976. (Carter, mistakenly interpreted the voters' response as a call for "tax reform." It actually was a complaint about tax levels and government performance. But he did pledge, along with his promise to overhaul the tax system, to trim the proportion of gross national product taken by the federal income tax.)
But this time, the protest by taxpayers may be more than just rhetoric - in part because for the first time in several years, a large and vocal group of taxpayers actually may have a case.
The revolt essentially is one of upper-middle-income taxpayers - those in the $17,000 to $35,000 brackets. According to opinion polls, these taxpayers feel they've been squeezed more than others in recent years by the combination of inflation and rising taxes. And the statistics show they may be right.
To begin with, total federal taxes have risen sharply in recent years - climbing to almost 20 percent of gross national product, up from 18.5 percent in 1968. The only other recent years in which the total passed the 20 percent mark - 1969 and 1970 - also saw tax payer revolts. The Nixon administration briefly considered a European-style value-added tax then to relieve the income-tax burden.
And statistics show that taxpayers in the $17,000 to $35,000 brackets are bearing an increasing share of the load. The lion's share of the big federal income-tax cuts in the past few years has gone to low and lower-middle-income taxpayers. And higher-income taxpayers often are "protected" by tax shelters and special tax treatment for investments.
Finally, inflation has pushed many middle-income taxpayers into much higher brackets - increasing the bite taken by federal income taxes. And recent increases in the Social Security wage base have hit hard at higher-income taxpayers.
Rudolph G. Penner, former Ford administration budget economist now with the American Enterprise institute, has calculated that, with the impact of inflation, a family of four that earned $8,500 in 1967 would have had to make $16,507 in 1978 just to keep pace. A $12,750-a-year family in 1967 would have to earn $24,761 now.
By 1977, the total federal tax rates - income and payroll taxes combined - for these families had soared by 23.7 percent and 32.3 percent respectively. The family that earned $12,750 in 1967 paid a combined federal income and payroll tax rate of 13.6 percent then. In 1977, that rate was 16.8 percent.
By contrast, the tax rates for the low- and lower-middle-income groups have fallen over the past several years. A family of four that earned $4,250 in 1967 would have had to make $7,697 in 1977 to retain the same purchasing power. But its total tax rate would have fallen from 8.3 percent to 6.45 percent - a drop of 22.3 percent.
For a family that earned $3,000 in 1967 - or an equivalent $5,433 in 1977 - the total rate plunged from 4.4 percent to 1.15 percent - a drop of 73.9 percent.
The figures are almost as dramatic in cases where family income rises more rapidly than inflation. In one-such case, Penner shows the income of the upper-middle income family would jump to $27,750, rather than $23,091 - and its tax rate would rise by 39.7 percent.
The figures produce similar results on the bite taken by state income taxes, with one big difference: State income taxes usually reach their maximum bite at middle-income levels.
For state property taxes, the impact is mixed. On one hand, real estate taxes are a smaller and smaller portion of the total tax burden, as states increasingly turn to income and sales taxes as their major revenue sources. Federal figures show property taxes nationally were at 4.2 percent of personal income in 1976, compared to 4.8 percent in 1967. In 1967, property taxes accounted for 29.8 percent of all state tax receipts. By 1977, they had dropped below 22 percent.
At the same time, however, the steep rise in home values - particularly in middle-income neighborhoods - has sent real estate taxes soaring for many middle- and upper-middle-income households. And in most states, so-called "circuit-breaker" provisions to hold down property taxes have only benefited the elderly.
It was this situation that helped spark the "revolt" in California, where property taxes had almost doubled in some affluent neighborhoods and state income taxes were high as well. According to figures compiled by the Tax Foundation, California's property taxes were the third-highest in the nation.
Estimates published by the Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations show a California resident earning $22,000 in 1953 would have paid an effective state income tax of 1.1 percent and federal rate of 20.4 percent.
But by 1977, inflation would have pushed that taxpayer's income to $50,000, and raised his effective state tax rate to 5.6 percent and his effective federal rate to 21.1 percent.
Moreover, polls show that Californians - and other Americans - are becoming increasingly disgruntled over how the government is performing. The California vote was interpreted as much as a protest against government generally as against taxes in particular.
The question is, how much of the California sentiment will spill over into federal, state and local government actions in other areas? And the answer seems to be some, but not very much.
For one thing, Californians have been particularly hard-pressed, caught between a heavier-than-average state income tax and a hefty property tax.
For another, the state is more "vulnerable" than most to a Proposition 13-like cut in local property taxes. It' easy to get such a proposal on the ballot in California, and the state has had enough money in its own coffers to make up the difference.
The National Taxpayers Union, one of the major proponents of Proposition 13-style tax- and-spending cutbacks, estimates there are only six other states where the ballot process is so easy, and only 15 where a referendum even is constitutionally possible.
Moreover, California's budget surplus, totaling $3.5 billion to $5 billion, depending on the calculation, is unmatched by any other state. While many states have some surpluses, the next-largest is in Texas which now holds $2 billion more than needed in its treasury. Without a large surplus, localities would wind up having to cut back on services.
What's considered more likely is enactment in a handful of states of a provision similar to that now in force in Tennessee, which simply limits the increase in state spending to the growth of the state's economy - specifically, the rise in the state's personal income over the year.
Spurred in part by the success of Proposition 13, Michigan taxpayer groups have garnered enough signatures to place a similar measure on that state's ballot next November, and similar efforts are under way in several other states.
It's not certain, however, how many of these will pass, and even if they do there's a hitch in the Tennessee plan: It simply doesn't constrain spending very much.
Initial reports show personal income in Tennessee rose 12 per cent in the most recent fiscal year, while the budget grew only by about 9 percent. As a result, the new spending limit didn't make much difference.
Still, Proposition 13 is having a major psychological impact, often pushing counties and localities into trimming back tax rates or imposing spending ceilings. And it's intensifying the rhetoric about tax relief and spending restraints which itself could prompt more local cutbacks.
In any case, it's clear that no matter what the ultimate impact, the nation hasn't heard the end of the next "taxpayers' revolt." If nothing else, taxpayer frustration finally is beginning to take a shape that politicians can react to. And that may be a significant development in itself.