Real Property Law

Interview with Author Charles Guarria

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Author of Proposition 13 – America’s Second Great Tax Revolt: A Forty Year Struggle for Library Survival

By John Richards

Cover of
Proposition 13 – America’s Second Great Tax Revolt: A Forty Year Struggle for Library Survival

So I’m here with Charles Guarria the author of Proposition 13 – America’s Second Great Tax Revolt: A Forty Year Struggle for Library Survival which has been recently released by Emerald Publishing Limited. The book is rich with the history of the law and is filled with anecdotes. It takes a close look at those who advocated both for and against the proposition, the processes behind government financing, taxing, spending, and organizing a grassroots campaign. You can find it here on Amazon.

So I see that you are a librarian at Long Island University, what inspired you to write about Prop 13?
A colleague and I were conducting researching for an article about the economic conditions during the great recession and how that effected libraries. While doing that research, we noticed two states, California and Ohio, consistently had funding issues. I decided to pursue the California angle and came upon Proposition 13 as the frequent scapegoat for library and other public service budgetary concerns. As you know, the law turned forty this past June. Meaning there is a lot of information. Seven years and one sabbatical later, I had a book!

Why is analyzing Prop 13 important for the entire nation … to you in New York, for example?
Many ideas and issues that start in California move east across the country. The tax revolt that was Proposition 13 was no different. It is credited with starting the Reagan Revolution as well as the 1994 Republican Revolution. Twenty-nine states, plus the District of Columbia, were moved to attempt similar tax cuts after Prop 13. Seventeen were successful in doing so. Beyond California there are passages in the book about the states of Washington, Maine, and the city of New York. Analyzing Proposition 13 is important, in terms of financing for public services, for what the implications are of raising or cutting revenue. These types of issues and how someone in the public sphere manages these issues are not contained to one state.

What are some interesting anecdotes about the development of Prop 13?
What I found interesting was how the people of California were moved to act. Their motivation came from the perception that the state government was inept. Twenty-two property tax bills failed a year before Prop 13 was passed. The state budget surplus was so high they did not know how much money they had. California State estimated they had a budget surplus of between three and six billion dollars. The people felt the state was awash in money, yet their taxes continued to go up. The key players in the initiation of Prop 13 capitalized on this feeling and said, ‘here is how much money you can save in year one, year five…etc…If you vote yes.’ There were dire warnings of severe cuts to public services, yet the people didn’t care. If those warning were to be true, the people felt, at least they had created the mess and not the inefficiency of government.

Who were the first major players?
Mr., Howard Jarvis and Mr. Paul Gann initiated Prop 13. Neither were native Californians but had moved to the state several years before they teamed up to cut taxes. Both were ex-businessman who had lost attempts to win political office. However, distinct differences in personality kept them from being the best of friends and led to exchanging barbs publicly after Proposition 13 was passed. Mr. Gann was quiet, Mr. Jarvis was gregarious. The latter appeared in a movie, was a guest on late-night television, and nearly won Time’s Man [sic] of the Year. Mr. Gann passed of pneumonia complicated by AIDS via a blood transfusion. In his final years he championed for a better understanding of the disease calling it his “gravest responsibility … more so than anything I’ve ever done.” In 1990, a year after his passing, the Paul Gann Blood Safety Act became law in California.

Howard Jarvis

What were the original intentions of Prop 13?
The overriding concern was to cut property taxes. Nearly equal to that was the acknowledgement that this law would give control back to the people by power of the purse strings as a two-thirds super majority would be needed to raise taxes. An unintended consequence was a shift in power away from local government to state government. Instead of trying to convince the citizenry to raise taxes local government turned to the state for money. The state saw this occurrence as an opportunity to undermine the autonomy of local government.

Today, do we see significant benefits to Prop 13?
Advocates say that it stabilized neighborhoods by allowing people to stay in their homes as opposed to being taxed out of them. In particular the elderly did not have to move. They point to favorable commercial property taxes as making California business friendly. Though this may change in 2020 when Prop 13 goes back on the ballot. Further, they believe local governments were forced to be more efficient and that the law stands as an example of how the people could wrest control from the government.

Paul Gann, left, and Howard Jarvis hold up their hands as their co-authored initiative Propsition 13 takes a commanding lead in the California primary, in Los Angeles, June 7, 1978. (AP Photo)

What are the difficult realities of Prop 13 that impact us today?
So much of what goes wrong in California gets tied back to this law. The reasoning being that Prop 13 robbed the state of tax revenue. Opponents will tell you capital improvements, child protective services, education, fire protection, infrastructure, libraries, parks and recreation, police protection, probation, public health, and higher user fees all suffer because Proposition 13 took the state and local governments money.

So, by the second great tax revolt, I presume you are referring to the revolutionary way or the Boston Tea Party. What makes Prop 13 on par with that type of revolution?
Yes, that is exactly the reference. As mentioned earlier it ignited a tax revolution that spread across the country. In addition to being credited as the impetus of the Reagan and Republican Revolutions columnist George F. Will stated that Proposition 13 was the impetus for “the conservative decade” of 1978–1988. It was often mentioned as one of two most widely publicized first world tax revolts of the twentieth century. The other being in Denmark in 1972.

What should every Californians know about Proposition 13?
This is a great question. I don’t think any present-day issue is framed properly unless one knows at least some of the history. And since the commercial property aspect of Prop 13 is back on the ballot in November, Californian citizens should know the events that led up to its passage. Read about it, watch a You Tube about it. Making a decision on whether or not it should be changed is best made knowing how it changed the state since 1978.

What are the other significant American tax revolts that would be in consideration? Why?
Beyond the Boston Tea Party, I am not sure I can point to a national movement of significance. The Tea Party was not, or has not to date, been successful in creating a smaller government nor reducing the national debt. Grover Norquist, the founder of Americans for Tax Reform, has been effective in getting politicians to sign the Tax Payers Protection Pledge yet California (ironically) New York and Connecticut citizens would be hard pressed to say they have significant tax relief. There have been state tax revolts of which I am unfamiliar with the results.

So, it seems just like yesterday that we lived in a world without cell phones and without google and without Wikipedia. Has library use gone down over the last 15 years?
Occasionally I do get asked, “Why do we need libraries if there is the web?” Based on visits, attendance at programs, and material circulated usage has not gone down. I also keep in mind that databases and ebooks are accessible from anywhere, so a public or academic library doesn’t require the patron to be physically present to be counted as a user.

How have libraries adapted to the modern world?
Public libraries have done a good job of transitioning to being more than a warehouse of books. There are certainly quiet places to study and read. And libraries should never lose their standing as the place to store the world’s knowledge. However, they are more and more places of community. Live musical performances, art and craft classes, Teen-zones (spaces designated as hangouts for teenagers) tutoring classes, family movie times, social workers, the library of things (non-traditional lending such as art, kitchen appliances, science kits, etc…) Libraries are office places where a burgeoning entrepreneur can get information to help grow his or her business. Also, librarians in both public and academic settings have been on the forefront of information literacy. A useful skill in helping discern if that meme that popped up on Facebook is real news or not.

Someday, will libraries be solely online?
No. People like the feel of a book. There is utility in having a Kindle, especially for a worker who commutes via public transportation or travels a lot. In academia, both faculty and students prefer hard copy books. Journals are different. Many libraries have reduced their hard copy holdings of periodicals and journals.

So history has been shaped but its great libraries, like Alexandria and the Turkish library in Pergamum. Do present day librarians hold a historical responsibility to preserve a culture?
Absolutely. That is a core responsibility of libraries. The Library of Congress recently stated a goal of attracting more patrons. Some feel that this will take away from its research mission. Why can’t it be both? Why can’t it be a place that contains United States history, our cultural norms, and have an exhibit on how Americans lived a century ago? Or art from 1800s? A librarian’s job is to make available all thoughts that make up the culture of the people. We need to strive to purchase, preserve, and present that culture as best we can. On every level, worldwide, nationally and locally. Through every medium, electronic (including streaming media) and/or print.

Where is the present day library of Alexandria?
I think this is country specific. In the United States we would say the Library of Congress, the French have The Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the Japanese would point to the National Diet Library, and so on.

What are some innovative things libraries are doing today?
One can get married at the Jacksonville Public Library in Florida. They have a beautiful rooftop atrium with a small reflection pond and a ballroom. More generally, makerspaces are very popular now. They include an assortment of items for creative endeavors such as robotics, sewing machines soldering guns, etc…

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