SACRAMENTO — Proposition 13, a simply worded initiative that shook the California government bureaucracy to its core, was born of the political marriage of folksy Paul Gann and fiery-tempered Howard Jarvis.
Jarvis, an apartment house landlord, had tried--and failed--for years to put a measure on the ballot to slash soaring property taxes. Gann, a retired car and real estate salesman, had failed in promoting a property tax cut in 1976.
"I thought since we had worked the living heck out of a lot of volunteers, we should join forces," Gann said in a recent interview. "I wanted us to come out with an initiative that he knew and I knew we could qualify."
Proposition 13 did win enough signatures to qualify for the June, 1978, ballot, giving irate homeowners the welcome power to slash property taxes by a collective $7 billion. The state Treasury was amassing a multibillion-dollar surplus while county tax bills, fueled by California's vaulting property values, were soaring high enough to threaten some residents with loss of their homes.
"We must have received four or five calls a day from people who were talking about turning on the oven without lighting it and sticking their head in it," Gann said. "You know, people weeping."
The more strenuously California politicians complained about the predicted impact of the looming initiative, the more resolute voters seemed to become. Proposition 13 passed by a 2-1 margin.
Reflecting on its approaching 10-year anniversary, Gann conceded that the initiative had built-in inequities. It pegged property taxes--which Gann said had averaged 3 1/2% of a home's value--to 1% of the 1975 market value of properties and clamped a 2% limit on yearly assessment increases.
Property could be reassessed only when it was sold. That provision, over the years, has resulted in some Californians paying two or three times the taxes imposed on similar properties in the same neighborhoods.
"My only regret is there isn't some way, and I keep looking for a way, that we can adjust this thing so my neighbor doesn't pay more property tax on the same valued piece of property than I pay," Gann said recently. "The reason we did that, and I can remember as if it was yesterday, was simply because you bought a home that fit within your budget."
The bespectacled Gann, 75, is thin and frail, and he has a longstanding tendency to twist up his sentences. His blood carries the AIDS virus, contracted in a 1982 blood transfusion during heart surgery.
Jarvis died Aug. 12, 1986, of a blood disease at the age of 83.
Neither man ever held elective office. Republican Gann lost a bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Alan Cranston in 1980.
Jarvis and Gann were miles apart physically as well as in temperament, with Gann living almost within the shadow of the state Capitol in suburban Sacramento and Jarvis headquartered in Los Angeles.
Often labeled "crusty" and a "curmudgeon" by reporters, Jarvis could explode with an angry volley of epithets when provoked and relished ridiculing politicians. In contrast, the mild-mannered, religious Gann sprinkles his conversation with references to God's providence and a love of country.
Praise for Jarvis
"Howard had a temper that could surface very easily," Gann said, "but Howard Jarvis was a brilliant man and he did love this country. Believe it or not--because sometimes he got a little harsh--he loved people.
"He was abrasive (but) he had worked faithfully for the people for years. He was not against taxes, but he was against the extravagance of taxes, the non-respect shown to the person who paid the bill."
Both men separately continued to put initiatives on California ballots each year after Proposition 13's passage, although with varying success. Jarvis' final measure, to require voter approval of local tax increases, was passed by voters three months after his death.
But on the same November, 1986, ballot, Californians rejected Gann's attempt to curb the salaries of high-paid government workers.
Gann did persuade voters to tie government spending to population and inflation--an initiative that rewarded taxpayers with a recent $1.1-billion rebate--and to overhaul criminal court procedures. His newest proposal would require taxes paid on gasoline to be used solely for roadways.
The Jarvis-Gann duo is credited with winning enactment of more far-reaching constitutional changes than any Californian since reformist Gov. Hiram Johnson won adoption of the initiative process in the 1920s.
"I'm very proud to have been part of Proposition 13," Gann said. "By joining forces (with Jarvis), I think the thing we were trying to say was, No. 1, to make it possible for people to retain their homes. No. 2 was that we want less government, not more government.
"We in California have shown the entire world . . . that we can still be what the Constitution says we are, and that is the government. It is we the people who gathered together to form a more perfect Union, and the responsibility still resides with us."