When Proposition 13 slashed property taxes in California two years ago, its critics predicted deep cuts in government services. Has the full impact now finally hit home?
Some experts say it has.
Law enforcement and education, two areas that Prop. 13 boosters said would not suffer, have now been markedly affected, some officials charge.
Schools officials in a number of districts report such steps as laying off teachers, charging special fees for busing pupils to school and for participation in sports, and eliminating some academic courses -- including foreign languages.
A federally funded report by the Rand Corporation says that some police departments are not only making do with aging equipment, but also deferring maintenance on that. And, the report adds, the service some are providing is "less humane and less responsive."
And local officials say there are indications that the chief beneficiaries of the property tax reduction measure are not individual homeowners but businesses, and that Prop. 13 has tended to make tax-collection inequities worse.
Countering these claims are Howard Jarvis, the "father" of Prop. 13, as well as some organizations which initially opposed the measure.
Mr. Jarvis and other defenders point to a relatively healthy state economy that has been stimulated at least in part by lower taxes. They also say that school spending cutbacks are due more to declining enrollment than to Prop. 13.
The initiative measure, passed in June 1978, sliced property tax rates in California by 55 percent. This cost local governments (cities, counties, and school districts) $7 billion in California.
For the first two years after Prop. 13 passed, communities were bailed out by the state government. Due principally to inflation and the lack of "indexing" to mitigate its effects on income tax collections, the state had amassed an embarrasingly huge multibillion-dollar surplus. There was some belt-tightening, but for the most part it was minor.
Now, however, the surplus has just about run out. After considerable wrangling, legislators in Sacramento have finally balanced the California budget.
Meanwhile, there is growing evidence that the long-awaited Prop. 13 crunch has come -- particularly to school districts, which lost half the $7 billion chopped from local revenues.
The San Francisco United School District is cutting 459 teachers, trimming elective courses, and doing away with elementary school librarians entirely. Nearby San Mateo County is charging school bus riders 20 cents per trip, and students must pay $20 to take part in school sports. The Jefferson School District in Daly City is eliminating French and Spanish courses from the junior high school curriculum.
The state's criminal justice system apparently has been his as well, according to the Rand Corporation study. Researchers found that police in California are less likely to respond to situations which may be perceived as minor, but nevertheless are "traumatic, frightening, or extremely annoying" to the victims. District attorneys are reducing the categories of offenses they prosecute, particularly official corruption and consumer fraud. Probation departments pay less attention to persons for whom they are responsible.
"In focusing its energies on serious crimes, the system appears to be losing some aspects humaneness that it previously showed toward arrestees, defendants, convicts, complainants, victims of crimes, citizens needing various kinds of assistance or reassurance, and the system's own employees," the report notes. "Generally, the picture is not an encouraging one."
Under the Prop. 13 mandate, property is reassessed to full market value only when it is sold. Since houses change hands more frequently than businesses, residential property tends to be reassessed upward more often. Since 1978 some two-thirds of the increase in assessments in San francisco property have been on residences, and this means property taxes have increased in those homes. The same trend is evident in other California communities.
At the same time, because of the new reassessment policy which favors longtime residents, neighbors living in near-identical houses may find themselves paying widely disparate tax bills.
It was for these reasons that the California Taxpayers Association, a group representing 1,300 businesses, initially opposed Prop. 13. But association executive vice-president Kirk West now feels that aside from these concerns, "the impact really hasn't been that great."
"As one who opposed Prop. 13, I think it's had more pluses than minuses," said Mr. West. "The level of governmental services has been slightly lower on a selective basis. Especially hard-hit were libraries. But overall, services have been maintained."