More Broken Promises?

Wednesday, May 14, 2008
Peter Schrag
Sacramento Bee

Thirty years ago, when Howard Jarvis drove Proposition 13 to a lopsided victory at the California polls, the old curmudgeon expended a fair amount of invective trying to prove that he was a real populist and not just a running dog for the Los Angeles Apartment Owners Association.

He was in fact employed by the apartment owners and his campaign was based there. But his argument was borne out by the fact that his shrewd direct mail campaign generated many thousands of small contributions from elderly homeowners fearful that they'd lose those homes to escalating property taxes. Many became members of what's now the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

But if Jarvis was in fact a real populist, his successors at HJTA, sponsors of Proposition 98 on the June 3 ballot, have a much harder time making the case.

The measure, which promises to restrain governments' use of eminent domain, would also end rent control in the 11 California cities that have it - a few others have some renter protections - and prohibit it forever more. Its big bucks support comes primarily from apartment owner groups, the owners of mobile home parks, real estate associations, the Farm Bureau and from HJTA itself.

Thirty years ago, many of those apartment owners implicitly promised their tenants that if Proposition 13 passed and their taxes were rolled back, renters would get a share of the savings. That didn't happen. But Proposition 13 did add fuel to the push for rent control

in Santa Monica and other California cities.

So in a way, Proposition 98 brings the story full circle.

Jon Coupal, the president of HJTA and designated voice for the campaign, argues that despite the large number of big funders, his measure has many more small contributors than the forces opposing it and/or backing Proposition 99, the house-broken alternative sponsored by among others, the California League of Cities and the California State Association of Counties.

Unlike Proposition 98, Proposition 99's version of eminent domain reform would cover only condemnation of residences for delivery to private developers and in no way affects rent control. It does not include language, as Proposition 98 appears to do, that could severely impede the ability of government to impose environmental controls affecting private property. If it passes with more votes than Proposition 98 it would go into the constitution. Proposition 98 would not.

At last count, the League of Cities was in for more than $3 million in the campaign to block Proposition 98 and pass Proposition 99; Californians for Neighborhood Protection, a creature of the League of Conservation Voters funded by environmental and labor groups, was in for more than $1 million and the Nature Conservancy for $250,000.

Those are hefty amounts, but they make clear that Proposition 98 is about a lot more than government condemning some hapless homeowner's house and delivering it (as Proposition 98 backers claim) to some politically connected developer for a hotel or a shopping center.

In any case, $500,000 from Realtors for Proposition 98 and proportional amounts from various groups of apartment owners and the Farm Bureau sound like a much more dubious approximation to vox populi than Jarvis' 1978 collection of aging homeowners.

The Proposition 98 lists, moreover, seem like a remarkable collection of unbundled contributors, where single individuals or businesses have written 10 or a dozen small checks on the same day aggregating $10,000 or more. One real estate development firm wrote 14 checks totaling $64,000 on the same day. How's that for "increasing" the number of contributors and keeping a low profile?

In the early 1980s, when Jarvis stood tall, the membership of HJTA was more than 300,000. It's now around 200,000.

The battle over Propositions 98 and 99, its poison pill alternative, are (once again) telling examples of how effectively the initiative process, written into the state constitution almost a century ago by well-intentioned political reformers, has been turned into an instrument of the very entities that its backers sought to check.

Once again, it's only people with deep pockets who get to play at all. Once again Bill Butcher, who, in managing Jarvis' slick direct-mail campaign in 1978, helped create what became known as the initiative-industrial complex, is a six-figure consultant to the Proposition 98 campaign.

Coupal charges that the cities, counties and his other opponents have illegally laundered taxpayers' money to fund their campaign, charges they deny. Nor would they be in the lists at all were it not for the multimillion-dollar campaign to strike down the local rent control ordinances that were in considerable measure sparked by Proposition 13.

Local rent control may in fact be lousy policy, distorting housing markets and discouraging both maintenance of existing housing and investment in new rental housing. But Proposition 98 wants to write the broken promise of 1978 into the state constitution and, once again, throttle local government and thus the ability of local voters to manage their own affairs.

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