Turn on the tube or open a newspaper here and it's 1978 revisited: Howard Jarvis, the feisty father of Proposition 13, is out thumping the state again, hard-selling yet another tax-cut potion under the "Proposition 9" label. But unlike two years ago, when a landslide victory for 13 touched off tax revolts all around the country, many of the same California voters who brought the first Jarvis remedy aren't at all sold on his latest concotction.
As a June 3 vote nears on this and all the other iniatives that go into California-style numbers-game ballots, the opinion samplings show growing opposition to "Jarvis II," the proposal to cut the state income tax roughly in half.
If this trend holds and the proposition loses, we'll no doubt be treated to all sorts of instant analyses hailing the end of the great taxpayer rush to clip governments' wings and heralding the return of public sentiment for those good old services that taxes used to pay for.
Forget it. Sure, some taxpayers must be having second thoughts about what they pay for and what they get. But the apparently growing resistance to Prop 9 is more a matter of basic math: 13 plus 9 could equal overkill. Even those who felt or still feel a certain fondness for Propposition 13, which cut property taxes by two-thirds, or its cousin -- last year's Proposition 4, which restricts state spending authority -- have good reason to say no to 9.
It's not only a matter of what another tax-whacking might do to state and local services, but the cold fact that the latest formula wouldn't save a penny for many friends of 13. Older people, for example -- retired homeowners who were being hurt the most by rising property taxes two years ago -- saw 13 as their lucky number. But a good 60 percent of California's older people don't pay state income taxes and therefore don't find a lot to like in 9.
About 20 percent of the state's owner-occupied households and 30 percent of households in rental dwellings pay no state income taxes; these residents are exempt because their incomes are low, which means they're among those who depend most on government for assistance.
Low-to-middle-income residents also are realizing that a graduated state income tax is quite another story from a property tax that they saw as unfair, out of control and unnecessary in light of a fat state surplus two years ago. Besides, Prop 9 wouldn't cut everyone's state income-tax bill in half anyway: estimates are that one-third of the tax cut would go to the 3 percent of Californians earning more than $50,000 a year. Another third of the cut amount could wind up in Washington as a result of federal income-tax deductions that would be wiped out.
That's hardly the most attractive package, and when Californians still aren't sure how Proposition 13 will look if the state surpluses aren't around to bail things out, it's even less appealing.
Already, more than 50 organizations in the city -- from PTAs to labor and senior-citizens groups, the handicapped, the Sierra Club, the Chicano Federation and the San Diego Urban League -- have joined in "No on 9" coalition. Almost daily, leaders of this effort have been locking horns with Jarvis on the evening news shows, hurling statistics at beleaguered moderators and swapping scare stories about the consequences of financial fiddling.
Despite signs that Proposition 9 may not be winning over voters, its opponents are anything but complacent. They know better than to presume an outcome for any California initiative. Similarly, local and regional officials from all around the country who were here last week for a convention of the National Association of Regional Councils remember only too well the warning from their California colleagues at the group's convention in Denver two years ago to "watch out for 13."
Today, many of those same government officials are grappling full-time with the legacies of 13, including attempts in many states and localities to write spending and revenue limits into charters and constitutions as well as other successful movements such as the TRIM campaign in Prince George's County, Md.
While no delegates were saying, "As California goes, so goes . . .," neither were they discounting the relentless barbs and charges from the "Lone Porcupine," as Jarvis calls himself. They shudder at the thought of another vote for what they consider to be half-baked and dangerous financial policy and its possible effects in their own states. Like the coalitions working here to defeat Jarvis, state and local officials elsewhere are just hoping that enough voters will realize that 9 is a proposition they can and should refuse.