Photo by Betty Tsang via Flickr Creative Commons

History in a Bar: Tying California’s Hands

I was so upset about California’s budget the other day that I almost did something about it. So I headed over to the bar to be talked out of it. But as I was sitting down to enjoy my $5 “recession special”—a can of Hamm’s, a shot of Michael Collins and a Slim Jim—my buddies Medford (Med) Boorman and Frank Maddox started talking about—what else?—the budget.

“25 billion short—that’s a lot of cash,” said Frank.

“Yeah,” grumbled Med. “But remember, it’s over 18 months.”

“You’re splitting hairs,” Frank replied. “Where’s the money coming from? [Governor Jerry] Brown’s fix might not even get on the ballot.”

“This government can’t even do their own job. Now they want us to do their work by putting it on the ballot.” This from Freddy the Freak (don’t ask), down the bar.

Next to the Freak, Tommy Agorapian leaned in and shouted down the bar, “Hey guys. I got a question. How did it get this bad? I mean, state legislators aren’t stupid.”

Silence. Followed by laughter.

“Seriously, guys. They’re not dumb,” Tommy insisted.

“I suppose,” I said, trying to bail him out. “But when they go to Sacramento, they gotta tie half their brain behind their backs.”

“And they only got half a brain to start with,” said Dave the bartender.

“It’s simple,” said the Freak. “They’re addicted to spending and we’re broke!”

“We’re not broke!” Frank said. “My grandpa came out here in the Depression and it was much worse then. He lived in a ditch. Literally! And they built the Central Valley Project—you know, all the canals? Walk down Olive Avenue—right there on the sidewalk it says WPA 1940. They found the money then.”

“And California’s richer than it ever was,” I offered. “Richer than 1960 when college was free. We need to raise taxes—hell, raise my taxes.”

Again silence. Followed by laughter.

Finally, the Freak said, “You’re un-American. What about the Tea Party—the real Tea Party? Those guys hated taxes.”

“Well Freak, you’re a little off,” Med said. “In the Boston Tea Party, they weren’t so pissed about taxes; it was that the goddamn Brits had no right to tax us in the goddamn first place. Americans were willing to tax themselves. They just didn’t want the goddamn Brits doin’ it.”

“I still say they didn’t like taxes,” mumbled the Freak.

Med snapped back, “Hell! No one likes taxes! But you got to pay for shit.”

Tommy jumped in: “Hey! What about my question? How come we got into this mess?”

Med was willing to offer his answer—nothing new there. Everyone at a bar is willing to offer their answers, but Med, well, he was louder than everyone. “You guys say they got one brain tied behind their back up in Sacramento? Well, we tied it there. Yeah, these politicians are dumber than most, but that doesn’t explain it. A genius’ head would just explode up there.”

“Stop speaking in code,” said Dave, glancing at Med’s four Slim Jim wrappers on the bar. Had Med had four already?

“All right,” said Med, soberly. “I’ll spell it out for you. Goddamn Prop 13.”

A groan from the Freak. “That was a million years ago. You guys always blame Prop 13. Well, guess what? People wanted it.”

“They wanted grandma to keep her house without being forced out because of taxes. That’s different.”

“Well, it kept property taxes down,” said Frank. “That’s what folks wanted.”

“Yeah,” Med admitted. “But folks want the things taxes pay for too—schools, infrastructure, police. Maybe even help the poor. I won’t say anything about two trillion dollar wars. You remember when Jerry Brown was governor the first time?”

“No,” replied Frank. “I was born in 1979. [Pete] Wilson’s the first governor I remember.”

“Children!” Med yelled. “Who let goddamn children into my bar?!”

“So. Governor Brown?” I said, keeping Med focused.

He continued. “Back in the ’70s, Ole Moonbeam didn’t know what hit him. There he was with a surplus, and this Prop 13 juggernaut comes in and pulls the rug out.”

“A surplus!? In California?” asked Frank.

“Yeah,” said the Freak. “And thanks to Prop 13, they were forced to cough it up.”

“And turn us into Calabama,” said Med. “Look. Prop 13 was a bait and switch. Howard Jarvis, the guy that pushed it, wasn’t some cat food eating Social Security oldster. He was representing the apartment owners. Those guys gained big time on their taxes; do you think that keeps rents lower? And commercial real estate was included too. They pretend that never changes hands, so they’re rarely reassessed at market value. PG&E and BNSF [Burlington

Northern, and Santa Fe Railroad] don’t get reassessed every time someone sells stock, do they? They rake it in, and we pay the price. It’s goddamn crazy.”

“That ain’t bad,” said Tommy. “It rewards people who remain in the community.”

“Are you kidding me?” Med was riled up now. “Chevron is a goddamn mom and pop? And there’s more. Prop 13 sent our money to Sacramento and said, ‘if you wanna pass a goddamn budget or raise taxes, you have to get a two-thirds vote.’ So now they can’t do anything. We were scared for grandma, so we put the state in a Prop 13 straightjacket, and now we complain when they can’t knit us a sweater.”

“But what about the rights of the minority?” I asked.

“My God! The minority wins all the time!” Med was angry. “If we want more stuff, we gotta get two yes votes for every one of your no votes. But if you wanna lower taxes you just need a majority. They put in permanent tax loopholes for huge corporations last year—for what? A one-year budget deal! That’s goddamn extortion.

“And the money’s there! Just take a look at the oil companies; unlike just about everybody else in the whole goddamn world, Californians don’t have the guts to go take our cut with an oil severance tax. Instead, because we don’t have majority rule to raise taxes, we pass propositions to borrow it from folks we should be taking it from.”

“So. What to do?” asked Tommy, settling up with Dave.

“Dillinger said something about going where the money is,” Med said, quietly.

I decided to offer my little bit: “Well, Carl Sandburg said, ‘We’re gonna do something. We don’t know what.’”

“Carl Sandburg?” Dave said. “In here?! Paul, I thought you knew better. You’re cut off.”

  • The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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