Imagine you live in one of those cookie-cutter communities in California where every house is pretty much identical. You struggled for years to save up for a down payment. In 2006 you finally pulled it off and bought a place for $584,800. Your next-door neighbor is about your age, if not a few years older. But, unlike you, he came from a well-off family. They gave him a down payment for a house when he graduated from college in 1982.
Your homes are identical. They're in identical condition. They would fetch identical prices on the market. But you're paying $6,200 this year in property taxes. Your neighbor is paying $1,957.*
The reason: Prop 13.
Riding a wave of anti-tax hysteria, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers' Assn. in 1978 successfully pushed to make state Prop 13 law in California. The proposition states that home valuation for tax purposes can increase only 2% per year - regardless of how much the real value goes up.
Of course, our above scenario is fictional. The real scenario looks more like this: In my hometown of Pasadena, Calif., where most money is old money, lifelong Tournament of Roses board members living in mansions with servants quarters containing actual servants pay less in property taxes than the family who bought a modest two-bedroom across the street from me last year.
Zealots like the folks behind the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. claim to be for lower taxes. Cut spending, they say, don't raise taxes. But pay attention and you see they're not really interested in that -they like driving on well-maintained freeways and relying on firefighters and having parks maintenance workers just as much of the rest of us do.
True, anti-tax zealots in California have demonstrated that they're all for reining in spending by cutting mental health services to children and medical services to needy AIDS patients. But, again, that's really just shifting the burden onto people too politically weak to attend $1,000-a-plate Republican fundraisers.
No, anti-tax zealots don't champion the taxpayers. They champion the powerful taxpayers.
In today's Los Angeles Times, Michael Hiltzik says we should overturn Prop 13, but for different reasons. He argues that Prop 13 has crippled government finances in our state, especially hurting local governments. I've also read that Prop 13 messes up local tax bases by further encouraging commercial development over residential (because local governments can make much more money off businesses than they can off homes).
For me, it all comes back to one thing: The leaders who try to whip up anti-tax fervor among voters lie about their motives. They paint their cause as one on fairness - and people fall for it. But in fact, fairness is the last thing they're after.
(* I arrived at these property taxes by amortizing at 2% the median Southern California home values I found here.)
Causes June Casagrande Supports
Planned Parenthood, ClimateCrisis.net, the Richard Dawkins Foundation, Pet Orphans of Southern California, KIVA