A few weeks ago, Dr. Strangelove suggested we have a discussion about the nature of democracy and how it is or isn't like republican government. This week, Law Talking Guy posted his thoughts about direct democracy in California. This latest posting got me going about one of my favorite things to dislike: Prop 13 (it's right up there with agriculture subsidies). US West and I got into a bit of debate about Prop 13 that kind of got off topic. So here is a post mainly about Prop 13.
If you would like a detailed account of Prop 13's effects on California, check out this PBS documentary "From First to Worst."
Here are the two features of Prop 13 that I think are most important. First, it decoupled property taxes from the market value of the property. Second, it required that all bills that are not budget neutral (so anything that costs anything) pass the state legislature by a 2/3 majority. These two features dominate California politics today.
The property tax feature has effectively defunded all local government. Making local governments dependent on bail-outs and revenue dispersal from the state government in Sacramento. This concentrated power in Sacramento. But while the power was being shifted from local governments to Sacramento, Prop 13 also imposed a 2/3 majority requirement on all budget decisions. This meant that while Sacramento had more and more authority, it was institutionally prevented from using that authority effectively.
I believe that Prop 13's backers used direct democracy to set up an unassailable conservative regime in a liberal state. And, ironically, while this regime was established through direct democracy, it resulted in a far more centralized regime than before, a regime less accountable to the voters than before. They have set up a permanently centralized (more disconnected from the people) and dysfunctional (less efficient) state government. Now they use that disconnect and dysfunction (caused by Prop 13) as an excuse for one right-populist ballot measure after another.
Defenders of Prop 13 argue that retirees need it to stay in their homes in a real estate market gone wild. But this begs a number of questions. First the rhetorical question: why do people retire to Florida and Arizona instead of Manhattan or San Francisco? Now the real questions: Do the elderly have the right to live in houses they can't afford? Do they have a right to live in the same towns they always lived when they retire? The same state? If they do have these rights, how much should the rest of society be expected to pay in order to subsidize their lifestyles? How many cops on the beat, fire stations, emergency rooms, or school buildings should the rest of society sacrifice so that elderly homeowners won't have to sell out and move out?
I know that last question sounded rhetorical but it's not intended to be. Prop 13 made a massive change in how the wealth of California was distributed and spent. There were winners (mainly elderly homeowners) but there were many losers as well. I think it is valid to ask how much should we rob Peter to pay Paul.
And even if the property tax part is justifiable, what about the 2/3 majority part? In my opinion, I would gladly trade away the entire referendum procedure in exchange to repealing the 2/3 majority requirement. That one section of that one ballot measure has so badly disrupted state government in California that almost any price would be worth its reversal.
OK, Let the debate begin!
Monday, June 13, 2005
Posted by Raised By Republicans at 3:06 PM