Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Don’t Blame Proposition 13
...According to liberals in politics, journalism, and academia, Proposition 13 is the reason for California’s worsening fiscal nightmare and the declining quality of the state’s public services, and the motives behind it were deplorable. And because Prop. 13 ignited a national tax revolt that remains potent, the Left also blames the measure for much of what it thinks has gone wrong in American political life generally over the past three decades.

Yet no matter how often their moral and intellectual “superiors” denounce them, California taxpayers continue to insist that the problem isn’t their purported stinginess but their government, which makes lousy use of the considerable funds that it continues to receive. On this point, the voters aren’t being stubborn, greedy, or stupid. The voters are right....

...By 2007, the year of the most recent Census Bureau data comparing state finances, California’s state and local governments levied $1,141 in property taxes per capita, less—but only 11 percent less—than the corresponding average, $1,288, for the other 49 states and the District of Columbia. Property-tax revenues in the state have increased from $4.9 billion to $47 billion in the 30 years since Proposition 13. Adjust those figures for inflation and population growth, and property-tax revenues in California were 87 percent higher in 2009 than they were in 1979, chiefly because of rising property values.

And even if one tax is limited, others can rise. A recent article in the California Journal of Politics and Policy by Colin McCubbins and Mathew McCubbins shows that, adjusted again for population growth and inflation, total state and local tax revenues in California were higher ten years after Proposition 13’s enactment than they were just before—and that they were half again as high in 2000 as in 1978. Census Bureau data show that California ranked tenth in the nation in 2007 in terms of per-capita receipts from all state and local taxes (property, income, sales, and excise taxes) paid by individuals and corporations. Per-capita receipts from individual and corporate income taxes were 64 percent higher in California than they were in the rest of the country: $1,764 in California, $1,077 elsewhere. All told, California’s governments received $4,731 per resident from all taxes, 14 percent more than the $4,160 average outside California.

Ah, comes the objection: these numbers unfairly compare California with an aggregate that includes many rural states with low taxes and limited public services. But even if we confine our discussion to the ten most populous states in the nation, home to 54 percent of all Americans in 2009, California remains a high-tax jurisdiction. Its per-capita taxes exceed not only the national average but those of every other high-population state except New York.

Not only is California a high-tax state; it is even more conspicuously a high-revenue state. Things that aren’t taxes, such as fees for government services, often have a high degree of “taxiness,” as Stephen Colbert might say. “Charges and fees have become an integral part of the California budgetary landscape” because they “give the government a revenue stream that is not subject to limitation and hard for voters to track,” the McCubbinses argue. For example, local governments impose assessments on real-estate developers for the infrastructure and public services that a new housing tract’s residents will require. The developers then incorporate those charges into every unit’s sales price. “Home developers estimate that fees, new infrastructure, and other mandated expenses now run to between $30,000 and $60,000 for each new home,” journalist Peter Schrag noted in Paradise Lost, his book on California’s fall from grace since the 1950s.

Thus it is that the Golden State, routinely described as desperately short of funds because of Proposition 13, brought in $12,776 per capita in governmental income from all sources—taxes, fees, federal aid, charges for government-administered insurance, and revenue from government-owned utilities—in 2007. This amount was the fifth-highest in the nation and second (again) only to profligate New York among the ten most populous states...