One of the most remarkably stable trends in California public opinion is the strong majority support for Proposition 13, even as the state’s demographics and politics have changed dramatically. This historic citizens’ initiative had the immediate fiscal impact of lowering property tax rates, restricting annual property tax increases, and raising the bar for local special taxes to a two-thirds majority vote. It also fundamentally changed the state-local relationship in California and ushered in the national tax revolt. Its supporters are shaping our fiscal choices today—even though many were not old enough to vote when the measure passed 36 years ago.
Proposition 13 passed in June 1978—toward the end of Jerry Brown’s first term as governor—with a 65 percent yes vote. Our most recent poll finds that 63 percent of likely voters today say that Proposition 13 has been mostly a good thing—as majorities have said since we began asking this question in 2003.
Among Proposition 13’s supporters today, about half were not old enough to vote, and 14 percent were not even born in 1978. As a group, they are mostly whites and homeowners, with annual household incomes of $60,000 or more. But they are also politically diverse. Supporters are evenly divided along party lines, with four in 10 Democrats, four in 10 Republicans, and two in 10 independents or other party members in this camp. More than half describe themselves politically as middle-of-the-road or liberals, while 45 percent say they are conservatives. About half live in the San Francisco Bay Area or Los Angeles.
What unites Proposition 13 supporters? One of their signature features is their higher level of distrust in state government. Large majorities say that the state government wastes a lot of the taxpayer’s money, believe that the state government is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves, and say that they trust the state government to do what is right only some time or none of the time. Six in 10 say that the state is headed in the wrong direction, disapprove of the way that the state legislature is handling its job, and rate the state budget situation in California as a big problem. Most say they would prefer to use the budget surplus to pay down the debt rather than restore social services. They are evenly divided when asked if they approve or disapprove of Governor Jerry Brown’s job performance—however, seven in 10 are in favor of his budget plans and approve of a rainy day fund plan that is going to the voters in November.
Proposition 13 supporters register the most consensus when asked about who should make choices for the state budget today: 83 percent want the California voters to make some of the decisions about spending and taxes at the ballot box, while only 13 percent want the governor and legislature to make all of the decisions.
Perhaps the most enduring contribution of Proposition 13 is that it has given the voters a significant and growing role in fiscal policymaking. Voters will decide the fate of the rainy day fund proposal, as well as a multibillion-dollar state water bond also scheduled for the November ballot.
When voters cast their ballots this year, it is important to be aware of the mindset of the sizable and politically diverse coalition of Proposition 13 supporters: a suspicious view of state government and a cautious approach to spending—even in the context of a strengthening fiscal and economic recovery in California.