Sep 1, 1978
Paul Gann, Revolutionary: An LR Interview
“If you’re known as a radical, it’s not long before you don’t have much influence any more.”
If the pundits don’t know quite what to make of Proposition 13, neither do the politicians. Some, like California Governor Jerry Brown and law-and-order State Senator George Deukmejian, have bounded onto the tax-revolt bandwagon. And their example has been followed in recent weeks by politicians all over the country. Others, like the elected officials of San Francisco, Oakland, and Sonoma County, California, have begun calmly replacing their lost property tax income by imposing increases in “fees.” “In the wake of Jarvis-Gann,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported in mid-August, “county officials across the state have raised fees for such services as building permits, septic tank permits and routine construction inspections.” In Sonoma County, the cost of a building permit has gone up 20 percent, the cost of a septic tank permit has nearly tripled, and other costs have been adjusted so steeply that it can cost nearly a thousand dollars merely to obtain the permits to build a vacation or retirement cottage there. Californians, needless to say, are fighting mad, and one of the maddest is the man who helped start it all in the first place, Paul Gann.
Gann is a retired real estate broker who lives in the Sacramento suburb of Carmichael, headquarters for his statewide taxpayers’ activist group, People’s Advocate, Inc. People’s Advocate came very, very close to qualifying a Proposition 13-type ballot initiative in 1976, the same year Southern California tax rebel Howard Jarvis almost accomplished the same thing. In 1977, they joined forces behind the same petition drive—and made history. Gann is more soft spoken, even retiring in manner, than Jarvis, and the crotchety, acid-tongued president of the Apartment House Association of Los Angeles has thus captured most of the headlines since Prop. 13 became a national issue. But, as LR discovered during an early August meeting with Gann in the office of People’s Advocate in Carmichael, a soft-spoken, retiring manner can merely mask the soul of a revolutionary with an iron determination.
LR: How do you feel about how Proposition 13 has been implemented?
Gann: It’s been terrible. In fact, most of our local bureaucrats, almost all of them, have in some way circumvented Proposition 13. They no longer call it taxes; they call it dues and fees. But we don’t care what they call it as long as they’re depleting the funds which come from our wallets. Some cities have increased their sewer fees by 500 percent and the cost of building permits by 1000 percent. We’ve gone to court in San Francisco and Oakland because of the way the bureaucrats in those cities have violated the spirit and the letter of Proposition 13. We trust the court will rule that a fee is a tax. If it doesn’t and the cities are legally allowed to raise these fees, then of course we’ll have to do something else. I’ve been working with Senator Deukmejian since June, trying to get his budget limitation bill out of committee, so that it can get on the Assembly floor. If we can get that out of committee and get it on the ballot this fall, what it will do is put a cap on the budgets of all governments in the state of California—cities, counties, school districts, everything. [The measure was not approved by the legislature—JR.] Now, if we can do that, that’s going to help. I don’t know that that will complete the job. I hope it will. But if it doesn’t, then we may have to circulate another petition.
LR: Time magazine commented recently that Proposition 13 proves the willingness of California voters to tolerate “cruel, destructive cuts in public services” in order to reduce taxes.
Gann: There haven’t been any. Whoever wrote that story wrote it from an interview with some old maid schoolteacher or something, because those cruel cuts aren’t coming. During the campaign one of the universities even verified the claim that if Proposition 13 became law it would cost 450,000 jobs. By the end of June that had become 50,000, and now it’s dropped to 9,000. And now I’m worried, because normally we lose 86,000 people every year just through attrition alone. They’re spending more money now than they did before Proposition 13 became law.
LR: Do you think we need further tax cuts beyond Proposition 13?
Gann: We’re going to have to have them if some of our state officials are telling the truth. The California state treasurer, Jess Unruh, recently said that we’re going to have another four to five billion dollar surplus in the state treasury at the end of 1978-79. Now if that’s true, after we cut taxes by six billion dollars, then it’s obscene, and I wish there were some way we could send the people responsible for it to jail. In a state where people are being taxed beyond their ability to pay, to have those kinds of surpluses is absolutely cruel and should be criminal.
LR: How about nationwide? Is a national tax revolt in the works?
Gann: Well, there certainly is a lot of unrest. I’ve been in 11 states myself and every one of them is ready to fight. In fact, in Oregon, the first state I went into, they’ve qualified a property tax initiative for the ballot this fall. The next state we worked with was Michigan. They’ve qualified their property tax initiative. Idaho has an initiative which will be on the ballot to limit spending, which is just as good. We have about 16 or 17 other states. I just received a telegram from Florida. I was down there because they were having a little trouble getting going, and they sent me a nice telegram thanking me for coming down and saying that, come hell or high water, they were going to qualify their initiative. They tell me that tomorrow morning I should have five to ten thousand people at a rally in New York; it’s been the same in Virginia, Maryland, Colorado, wherever we go.
LR: There’s a move afoot now to amend the U.S. Constitution to limit federal spending. Do you think Proposition 13 had something to do with spurring that?
Gann: No question about it. You see, what Proposition 13 did was convince people that we can do something. Despondency and apathy had set in over the years, and people had gotten to the point where, even in talking to me, they would say, “Well, what can we do? There’s nothing we can do. Anything we do they’ll beat us one way or another.” But I don’t believe that. The only time you’re whipped is when you refuse to get up. They got up this time. And look what happened. People throughout the other 49 states have taken heart. They’re saying, “They did it, in California!” I see a difference in the expressions on people’s faces. The gleam is back in their eyes. They aren’t ashamed to be Americans anymore. They’re taking a position and they’re not being doormats. That’s what we’ve been for years, really. Bureaucracy has run this country. We now have a fourth branch of the government—the bureaucrats. And they now dictate to the three legal branches. When you think about the amount of real power elected officials have today in our government, it’s almost frightening. They don’t have a lot to say about what’s happening—they can only say “yes” to special interests.
LR: A great many politicians have jumped on your bandwagon since Proposition 13 passed, even politicians like Jerry Brown who opposed it before it passed. And when you consider that Jerry Brown is a liberal, you see that politicians from both the liberal and conservative constituencies are coming out in favor of tax reduction. Yet a lot of people in the media are calling the tax revolt a conservative backlash, a swing to the right. Do you think that’s accurate?
Gann: That isn’t true at all. They’d like to make it that. People in the state of California, as well as in the rest of the states, are tired of being pushed around by bureaucrats. They would like to see the government get out of their personal lives. They’d like to start thinking a little bit for themselves. The proof that the government does a lousy job is that it started out 30 years ago to control the lives of the people of this country and manage them and it’s only gone into debt 500 billion dollars in the last 22 or 23 years trying to accomplish that. That isn’t a very good success story. They’ve failed utterly. Too many of us forget that before the government giveth, the government taketh. That’s always true.
LR: The New Republic has described the tax revolt as libertarian. They say “a blending of libertarian rhetoric with cash prizes for the middle class is the central appeal of the new backlash.”
Gann: This is not a specifically libertarian movement. It’s not a right-wing or a left-wing movement. This is the people. The people are tired of being milked like a Holstein cow with an electric milking machine.
LR: It’s been pointed out by your critics that only the Swiss and the Japanese pay fewer taxes than Americans, comparing all the citizens of Western, free-world countries. The Danes pay more, the Canadians pay more, the English pay more… .
Gann: I couldn’t give a damn less what they do in England. I don’t live in England. If I lived there I’d be raising holy hell, because the Queen, I understand, gets five million dollars a year. And anytime I had to share a john with two other families because I couldn’t make enough money to pay my taxes and live, I’d be out picketing in front of Buckingham Palace. I keep hearing about what they’re doing in Europe. Who cares? I don’t live there. I live here. And just because those people are stupid enough to sit down and allow themselves to be used as sanitation paper doesn’t mean we have to follow their example. Our forefathers all came from those other countries over there, and they came over here because they didn’t like what was going on there. So now we have to bring it with us? No, we don’t.
LR: So you wouldn’t agree that it’s greed that’s motivating the people who voted for Proposition 13?
Gann: Greed is what has brought us to where we’re at. The people now are waking up to the fact that what we have been going through in the last several years has really been a phony prosperity based on borrowed money. Look what inflation is doing to us. According to a report I have out of Washington, D.C. the average American family’s living standard is now going down at a rate of $270 a year. Down, not up. And that’s an average. Of course there are some people, particularly the people who work for the government, who get a guaranteed cost of living raise every year plus a little more pension. They could care less. Why should they care as long as the taxpayer is willing to continue to pay and not object? I wonder what’s wrong with people objecting to being robbed. There’s a People’s Advocate member in Malibu. He’s 80 years old and he’s probably wealthy. I never knew that was a sin. I always thought that was the American ideal. If you’re smart enough to make money, make it. But this man’s property tax has gone up from $2000 to $5600 and he is upset. He says, “The fact that I can afford to pay it is beside the point. When people take my money, I want them to show enough respect to pull a gun on me.” And I agree with that. They talk about greedy taxpayers, because we’re trying to save one or two of our own bucks. These bureaucrats continuously leech and take. In San Francisco they bought $265,000 worth of stoves and refrigerators over the last two or three years, and now they can’t find a stove or a refrigerator. And we’re“greedy” and “mean” and a bunch of dirty bastards if we don’t like that. A food stamp store closed recently because the boys in charge left the door open one night and packrats came in and got five million dollars worth of food stamps. We don’t like that. Really we don’t. But then of course if that’s bureaucracy you’re not supposed to say anything about it. They’d better clean up their act, that’s all I have to say about it, because we’re developing some of the most beautiful resignation forms you’ve ever seen.
“Greed is what has brought us to where we’re at. The people now are waking up to the fact that what we have been going through in the last several years has really been a phony prosperity based on borrowed money.”
LR: Some of the critics of Proposition 13 have called it an example of “mobocracy.” They say the whole initiative process is a means of allowing what they call “kookie” policies and unwise decisions to take the form of law.
Gann: Kookie? Unwise? While the bureaucratic planners are busy planning bridges and freeways that go nowhere and bridges that don’t have highways at either end of them? Such brilliant things as that? And the health, education and welfare system that admits to seven billion dollars a year being stolen from it—that kind of perfection? Doesn’t make sense, does it? These people are afraid they’re going to lose their banana. Who knows? Some of them may have to start working in private enterprise. That would really crush them. I think their honeymoon’s over. The bureaucrats have had their way in this country so long that they seriously believe we’re invading their privacy—they really do. But how long do they think we can continue borrowing money to maintain this phony prosperity? They think we have nothing to worry about—if you run out of dough, you raise the debt ceiling and you print some more money. You borrow again. Except that is the phoniest thing we do, because what we’re doing is hocking the very souls of generations yet to be born. What’s so great about that? If you took a gun and did it, it’d be honest, anyway.
LR: Who’s your favorite in the California gubernatorial race?
Gann: Well, I only have two choices and one of them isn’t Brown. That’s about the nearest I can come to endorsing anybody. The Libertarian candidate, Ed Clark, would be, no doubt, a tremendous governor, but I think we all know that the race is going to be between the attorney general [Republican Evelle Younger] and Governor Brown. Whether that’s right or wrong is beside the point. I think Governor Brown has been a very brilliant politician in his move on Proposition 13, but I also remember that just three weeks or so before the election the governor said, “If you vote yes on Proposition 13, don’t come to Sacramento expecting the state to bail you out, because we will not be your sugar daddy.” Then on the eighth day of June, two days after the tremendous vote for Proposition 13, he said, in essence, to the people of California, “Come unto me all ye who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” That’s what you’d call a 180 degree turn in about four weeks. I hope the people are thinking about his position before the election. I hope. I also hope we will eliminate some legislators, because we made one tremendous mistake last time: We sent back 86 percent of the incumbents. We sent the mess back to clean itself up—and that’s never happened. And it never will happen.
“Right now, we can exercise a lot of influence. Proposition 13 has inspired the people of this country to the point that they now know that they can win, if they’re willing to get out and put their hearts and souls into it.”
LR: Is tax reduction all the cleaning up you’re interested in seeing?
Gann: No. I don’t want to win just Proposition 13. To me it’s no panacea. It’s only a step in the right direction. That’s all it’s ever been. Eventually we want to limit the term of office that a legislator can serve. We’d like to see each legislator spend six months out of every year at home with his constituents. We love ’em up here in Sacramento, but we don’t want them turning into residents, you know. And we will eventually return control of the income of the top echelons in government to the people, so that they can’t vote themselves those outrageous salaries. It’s ridiculous that we’ve allowed the government to go to the point where it dictates our lives completely. As an example: When the government can tell you where to send your kids to school, to me that’s the last straw. I just can’t understand people taking that, myself.
I wish I could convince Howard Jarvis that we can’t stop with Proposition 13. Howard’s a first-rate radical, but unlike me, he wants to be known as a radical. If you’re known as a radical, it’s not long before you don’t have much influence any more. And right now we can exercise a lot of influence. Proposition 13 has inspired the people of this country to the point that they now know that they can win, if they’re willing to get out and put their hearts and souls into it.
Jeff Riggenbach is senior editor of Libertarian Review.