California's recent weeks of chaos carry three lessons for the rest of the nation.
1. It's time that governments get about the business of curbing state and local budgets, especially in the nation's "high tax" states. Any time taxes rise so precipitously that significant numbers of people can't afford to keep their homes, rapid preventive action is essential.
2. The meat-ax approach of Proposition 13, while it certainly dramatizes the issue, is precisely the wrong way to do the job. Politicians in other states, rushing to ape California's proposition 13 with unthinking, whacks at tax bases, do their constituents a grave disservice.
3. There are other - and far more responsible - ways to do the job.
The stage for taxpayer revolt was set when states and localities let their combined budgets, as a share of personal income, rise a staggering 85 percent between 1948 and 1977. Some of that increase was clearly justified, but not all. Swollen bureaucracies, overlapping jurisdictions and special-interest programs are facts of life in all 50 states.
But there's no guarantee Proposition 13 will address these problems very well. Sold as a salvation for homeowners, it actually provides far more relief to large corporations and landowners who won't necessarily spend their windfall gains in California at all. By 1983, it may increase homeowners' share of California property taxes from the current 36 percent to 64 percent.
Cataclysmic government-worker layoffs (some projections exceed 250,000) will be partially delayed by state aid from California's $5 billion surplus. But layoffs, including some in essential services, have already begun. They are bound to get worse, including among their chief victims blacks and Latinos hired under equal-employment programs in recent years.
But there could be a silver lining to the dark cloud of Proposition 13. Alternative forms of cutting tax burdens and making governments more productive and accountable have been developed across the land in the last few years. All now deserve a fresh look - and a fresh push:
Efforts to limit the overall increase in combined state and local budgets to a reasonable level, such as a percentage of personal income within the state or the growth in inflation and population. So-called "tax expenditure limits" - TELs - have already been passed in Tennessee, New Jersey, Colorado and Michigan, and are pending in a number of other states.
TELs make sense if 1) the limit is set at a reasonable figure, not requiring draconian budget cuts, 2) both state and local budgets are included, since the two are inextricably interwined, and 3) there's an escape clause - a majority vote of the legislature, with full disclosure and required explanation to the citizens - to break the limit to meet special emergencies.
Governors and legislative leaders should move quickly to enact reasonably framed TELs early enough to thwart extremists who will otherwise rush in, machetes poised, to make huge cuts that imperil vital services.
TELs make sense because they affect all forms of state and local taxes (not just property levies), and particularly because they force state legislatures to face up to hard priority choices: which government services are really essential and which can reasonably be cut back or eliminated.
Sunset laws, already passed in 28 states, to force government agencies and programs to come up for review every few years and to terminate those that can't win fresh legislative majorities.
Improvements in the way state legislatures operate. Many legislatures have been increasing their oversight of existing programs, to ensure greater productivity and accountability, instead of loading the statute books with ever-increasing programs. They've also begun to automatically fund new services they tell local governments to perform, rather than forcing local taxpayers to pick up the tab.
State relief for the local property taxpayer. This began with "circuit breakers" and "homestead exemptions," usually for elderly or low-income households. Now many states have assumed an increasing percentage of local school costs, often propelled by court orders for equalized school spending among districts. Unfortunately, many localities used their freedup local revenues for expanded programs instead of tax cuts. So, many states now enforce strict limits on how fast cities and counties can raise property taxes.
Hard-nosed bargaining with government-employee unions to limit salary increases and, particularly, pension benefits in excess of what private-sector workers enjoy.
Civil service reform. It's as overdue and sorely needed in states and localities as in the federal government, where the Carter administration is pushing for a comprehensive reform package.
Streamlining local governments to eliminate redundant, overlapping layers of jurisdictions, as well as making annexations easier, and cutting back on the thousands of special districts that accumulate major taxing authority yet lack direct accountability to the voters.
Taken alone, none of these will avert taxpayer revolts. But if state and local leaders will push them seriously and consistently, they could have a big cumulative impact - and quite possibly relieve other states of the agonies the blunderbuss approach of Proposition 13 is now visiting on California.