It’s been 25 years since California lost one of its finest, Howard Jarvis. Sadly, this means that few who are not middle aged or older know much about this titan of the taxpayer movement.
There was a time when we relied on oral history. Stories of our heroes who contributed to the welfare of the clan or tribe were repeated around the campfire or before the hearth. With today’s high-tech instant communication, history is now yesterday’s tweet or e-mail and there is a tendency to consider what happened before then as irrelevant.
So here is a little refresher on a man whose words and deeds are as important today as they were a quarter century ago.
In the early 1960s, Jarvis was one of many Californians who were becoming increasingly concerned about a property tax system that was tied to the escalating market value of property, with no relationship to the owner’s ability to pay. Each county set its own tax rate with the average being 2.6 percent, and a 10 percent increase in a home’s value would trigger a 10 percent increase in taxes owed. Jarvis recognized that Californians were being taxed on paper profits which they had not realized while tax collectors insisted on cash.
Jarvis had already begun to organize like-minded taxpayers, when on a visit to the assessor’s office he saw a middle-aged woman drop dead of a heart attack while pleading for relief from excessive taxation on her home. Seeing this woman die fired up Jarvis even more and this tragedy inspired his campaign slogan for Proposition 13, “Death and taxes may be inevitable, but being taxed to death is not.”
Jarvis was fearless and would not give up his crusade for tax reform. He would respond to setbacks by quoting Churchill, who, in refusing a Nazi demand for surrender during the darkest days of WWII, said, “What kind of people do you think we are?” Later he wrote about those times when the taxpayer movement was struggling, “We believed that although every American is different from every other American, no American has the right to be indifferent or apathetic when liberty and freedom for all Americans are on the auction block. We knew we had to prove again that the American system of freedom and liberty is the greatest in the world.”
From an initial handful of taxpayer activists in Los Angeles, the movement grew to hundreds and then thousands throughout the state. Still, they were taking on the entrenched power structure and nothing was easy. After qualifying Proposition 13 for the ballot, which established a statewide property tax rate of 1 percent and limited annual increases in assessed value to no more than 2 percent, it was opposed by nearly every politician in the state including Jerry Brown, who appointed himself as the chief spokesman for the opposition, and Pete Wilson. The California Chamber of Commerce and most major business interests also weighed in against tax relief for property owners. Then, as now, many in the business community supported taxes on regular folks out of fear that tax relief for others would result in higher taxes on themselves.
But because of the pugnacious Jarvis and the tenuousness of thousands of taxpayers he inspired, Proposition 13 was overwhelming approved and recent polls show Proposition 13 remains just a popular after 33 years.
After the passage of Proposition 13, Jarvis continued his work. He reached out to other states where citizens were fighting to limit taxes. And he helped to promote what became President Reagan’s tax cut of 1982, which set the stage for a national economic resurgence.
To the end of his days Jarvis continued to write, speak and inspire. He always believed in the importance and wisdom of individual Americans who, acting in concert, could and should control their own government. He said if we had bad politicians running things, we had to accept responsibility, and we the people must work harder to replace them with more worthy leaders.
Following the course Howard Jarvis set means hard, sustained work, but the rewards in freedom and liberty are immense. He liked to refer to the words of the Star Spangled Banner, “… the land of the free and the home of the brave,” and he would say, “You must be brave to be free.”
At the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association we stand on the shoulders of a giant.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.