Happy Birthday, Prop. 13
Proposition 13, the California property tax–cap initiative that unleashed an era of fervent antitax sentiment and activism across the US, is 34 years old today. The necessary two-thirds of the voters who turned out passed the People’s Initiative to Limit Property Taxation on June 6, 1978. Stable funding for public services, including libraries, hasn’t been the same since.
It wasn’t that Californians had tired of government services, explains Cody White in his award-winning essay “Rising from the Ashes: The Impact of Proposition 13 on Public Libraries in California” (Libraries & the Cultural Record, vol. 46, no. 4, p. 347–359). It was that Prop. 13 progenitor Howard Jarvis had hit on a winning strategy: decoupling the burden of paying taxes from the benefits taxpayers receive for contributing to the public welfare. After a series of antitax-reform defeats in which Jarvis called “to end payments for such programs as Social Security, Medicare, parks, garbage collecting, and libraries,” White writes, Jarvis hit on utilizing instead “anecdotal stories of the ‘hardship’ caused by tax increases” and shedding the use of hard data to make his point. In one poignant story that he often repeated, Jarvis told of “the trauma of high taxes on older people,” recounting that he saw “one woman have a heart attack in front of me back in 1962 right in the assessor’s office.” White notes that “even though the age of the deceased woman varied as Jarvis repeatedly told this story, the feelings it generated resonated with the public.”
Of course, for every action there’s a reaction. In this case, Prop. 13 propelled library advocacy into librarianship’s basic toolkit; the profession learned on the front lines how to sway constituencies with the facts—distilled from thousands of patrons’ stories.
Knowledge is power, after all. It’s a matter of how one wields it. The fact that there’s still a front line from which to fight speaks to that.