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Taking the Initiative
This year's ballot is a daunting proposition
By R. V. Scheide
Democracy is supposed to be an adventure, and this year's presidential election is shaping up to be all that and more, a genuine nailbiter. "Comeback Kerry" is living up to his nickname; Dubya is wilting down the home stretch. It's a real horserace, coming down to a photo finish. Thank God that Kerry's got a bigger nose. Freedom doesn't get any better than this.
Then there's the California Secretary of State's Voter Information Guide, the thick pamphlet detailing the 16 statewide ballot propositions that was recently stuffed in the mailboxes of millions of registered voters. That's right, it's time for that biennial rite of the California fall, Initiatives Gone Wild! What ails the state? The 16 propositions offer significant clues, provided one can actually remain conscious perusing 156 pages of ponderous prose that knows no narrative but numbers 59 through 72. Any way you slice it, the guide is a one-way ticket straight to the heart of Dullsville. Don't we pay legislators enough to read this stuff for us?
Apparently not, according to the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), a private nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization that conducts studies for the Legislature. The PPIC reports that "Californians . . . appear to have a greater trust in the state's voters than in their elected officials when it comes to making public policy decisions."
In other words, we're all doomed.
But that's no reason not to whistle through the graveyard. The initiative process, established by constitutional amendment in 1911, was a tool designed by progressives to turn voter outrage against a legislature totally corrupted by corporations such as the Southern Pacific Railroad. Since the 1970s, and particularly since the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, the process has morphed into what the PPIC calls the "initiative industrial complex," where just about anyone with $2 million or so to spare can place a pet project on the ballot--or mount opposition to someone else's pet project.
Indeed, none of the propositions on this November's ballot enjoy the sort of groundswell of public support property-tax relief engendered in the late 1970s. That's not to say that this crop of propositions isn't important--pass or fail, the outcome of the 16 initiatives will affect state spending decisions measured in the billions of dollars. That's not chump change, considering Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently borrowed $15 billion to balance the state's $100 billion-plus budget, and another multibillion dollar deficit is on the way next year. Acknowledging the weakness of both the state's fiscal condition and the current economic recovery are perhaps the two most important factors to consider when evaluating this election's propositions.
A primary symptom of the country's overall economic weakness can be found in the fact that five of the propositions directly or indirectly concern healthcare, the price of which is exploding even as millions nationwide have been forced into the ranks of the uninsured.
Two of these five propositions, 61 and 71, seek approval for new state bonds. If passed, Proposition 61 authorizes the state to issue $750 million in general obligation bonds to support capital improvements at children's hospitals throughout the state. With interest, the estimated total tab for taxpayers is $1.5 billion. Proposition 71 would authorize the state to issue $3 billion in general obligation bonds with a total taxpayer tab of $6 billion.
Propositions 63, 67 and 72 seek to raise taxes or fees to fund healthcare-related services. Proposition 63, if passed, would place a 1 percent tax on personal incomes above $1 million to provide dedicated funding for expansion of state and county mental health services and programs, decimated from years of neglect. Proposition 67 would boost the existing surcharge on telephone use within California by 3 percent, raising $500 million annually to pay physicians, hospitals and clinics for uncompensated emergency care and to fund other first-responder services. The phone tax would be limited to 50 cents on residential lines, but unlimited on cell and business phones. Proposition 72, a referendum on Senate Bill 2, passed shortly before Gov. Gray Davis' recall, seeks to limit the share employees are required to pay for employer-provided health insurance to 20 percent. Currently, there are no limits, and thanks to the aforementioned rise in the cost of insurance, employee contributions to health plans have increased by 70 percent in the last three years.
These healthcare propositions illustrate a fundamental problem of the initiative process. Each responds to very real needs, but that doesn't necessarily mean each represents the wisest solution to the problem. Legislators used to figure this stuff out for us, but now we're on our own. For example, Proposition 71 addresses the Bush administration's continued refusal to federally fund stem-cell research, which someday might create cures for maladies ranging from Alzheimer's to spinal cord injuries.
Even though the state is entitled to royalties from any such discoveries that may eventually pay for the initiative, there's no guarantee those discoveries will occur, and few would argue that the state's current fiscal condition warrants subsidizing the private corporations who conduct the bulk of stem-cell research to the tune of $3 billion plus interest. Twenty Nobel Prize winners support Proposition 71, but they don't have to pay for it. We do.
Another sign of the state's desperate financial straits can be found in the appearance of yet two more initiatives concerning Indian gaming, Propositions 68 and 70, both of which use the lure of easy money in the form of a tax on Indian gaming revenue to entice voters. Never mind that numerous studies have shown that lower-income people--those who can least afford it--tend to gamble more than middle- and upper-income earners. Concerns about regressive taxation went out the window in the 1990s, when the state established the lottery, opening the casino door to the tribes in the first place.
Crime issues always make popular propositions, and two grace this year's ballot, Propositions 66 and 69. The first seeks to modify 1994's "three strikes" law by requiring increased sentences only when the current conviction is for a specified violent or serious felony. However, to sweeten the pot for the tough-on-crime crowd, the initiative also increases the penalty for sexual predators of children by requiring a 25-year-to-life sentence for anyone convicted of a second sexual offense. Two strikes and they're out. Proposition 69 is a little scarier, requiring the collection of DNA samples from all felons, as well as from adults and juveniles arrested--arrested, not convicted--of specified crimes.
The remaining propositions represent a potpourri of competing interests. Proposition 62 seeks to change the primary system so that voters, no matter what party affiliation, can select any candidate they wish. But only the top two vote-getters, even if they're both Greens, advance to the general election. Proposition 60 would keep things the way they are now, allowing all parties that compete in the primaries to advance their top candidate to the general election.
Proposition 64 is a transparent end-run around the state's unfair competition law that would prohibit parties not directly injured by a corporation's bad actions--such as attorneys who file environmental protection lawsuits--from doing such things as filing environmental protection lawsuits. Proposition 59, sponsored by the Legislature, would constitutionalize the public's access to state information, except of course information generated by the Legislature itself, which is exempt from the legislation. Proposition 60A would mandate that proceeds from the sale of state property be used to pay down bond debt.
Speaking of bond debt, the two remaining propositions on the ballot have yet to appear in the official voter guide. The recently nullified Proposition 65 would have prohibited the state from shifting money from cities and counties into the state general fund. If Proposition 65 were already in effect, for example, it would have forced Gov. Schwarzenegger and the Legislature to renegotiate the recently passed state budget. Apparently the initiative's backers had second thoughts, orphaning Proposition 65 in favor of Proposition 1A, soon to appear in voter's mailboxes as a supplement. It lets Arnold and the Legislators raid local coffers for two more years--when the crazy initiatives gone wild process rolls around once again.
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From the October 13-19, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.