Measure by measure

A preposterous number of propositions go before voters

Want further evidence that state government is a mess? Consider the 16 initiatives on the Nov. 2 ballot. Heck, consider the initiative process itself.

Since passage of Proposition 13 in 1978, special interests have been making end runs around the Legislature and using the initiative process to set taxing and spending priorities and shape the form of government, and this year is no different.

Some of the 16 state measures—16!—are well-intentioned efforts to solve real problems, but the accumulated effect of such piecemeal lawmaking over the years is to make state government even less workable.

There are four measures to fund health care, for instance. Another to mandate health insurance. One to change the form of primary elections and another to invalidate it. Two affecting Indian casinos. Two that mandate state funding formulas. And so it goes.

In California, governmental dysfunction is a circular phenomenon. The Legislature fails to solve a problem, the voters then approve an initiative to solve it, and the initiative creates even more problems—including tying lawmakers’ hands in future deliberations.

With that in mind, we’ve applied a skeptical eye to this year’s ballot measures, attempting in our analysis of them and voting recommendations to balance their potential benefit against the harm created by the initiative process itself.

We also offer our analyses and recommendations on some local measures.

Prop. 1A: Seemingly a response to the state’s repeated raids on local government funding, Prop. 1A requires the state to maintain certain levels of funding—property taxes, sales taxes and vehicle license fees—for cities, counties and schools. It can be suspended only if the governor declares a fiscal emergency and with the approval of two-thirds of the Legislature.

Part of this year’s budget compromise, the measure is backed by Gov. Schwarzenegger and all parties involved. Opponents, including Board of Equalization Chairwoman Carole Migden, argue that it jeopardizes critical programs by tying up tax revenues and locking in place a tax system that encourages sales-tax-generating strip malls and big-box outlets and discourages creation of affordable housing.

Prop. 1A is competing with Prop. 65 (see below); whichever gets the most votes will take effect.

We agree with Migden: This measure locks in financial incentives that favor retail over housing and isn’t worth the short-term revenue boost it gives the state. Vote no.

Prop. 59: This proposition would amend the state Constitution to guarantee more public access to government meetings and decisions, always a good thing in a democracy. There is no organized opposition. Vote yes.

Props. 60: Flying under the radar just before deadline, state legislators quickly put this measure, together with Prop. 60A, on the ballot in an effort to block the reforms of Prop. 62 (see below). If both 60 and 62 pass, whichever gets the most votes will prevail. Prop. 60 requires that a party’s top vote-getter in a primary election appear on the general-election ballot—a continuation of the present, dysfunctional system that assures safe seats and encourages partisanship. We recommend a no vote.

Prop. 60A: Originally part of Prop. 60, this caretaking measure had to be stripped away so Prop. 60 could meet the constitutional requirement that it deal with only one subject. It requires that proceeds from the sale of state property be used to pay off the state’s debt. Nothing wrong with that, but vote no just to protest such a trivial matter’s being put on the ballot.

Prop. 61: This bond measure would ask our children in the future to pay off $1.5 billion in debt in order to generate $750 million now to build children’s hospitals. Yes, we need more children’s hospitals, but not enough to add that much money to an already heavily burdened future. Vote no.

Photo Illustration by Tina Flynn

Prop. 62: This is an attempt to reform the state’s election system by eliminating party primaries and replacing them with open primaries. In such primaries, all voters, regardless of party affiliation, could vote for any candidate for federal or state office, with the exception of the president. The top two vote-getters, even if from the same party, would face each other in the general election. The idea behind the measure is that moderate candidates will win election more than they now do—which is almost never—and that the public will be better served by a decrease in partisanship and an increase in moderation. We’re tired of the rank partisanship that infests the Legislature these days and think this is an approach worth trying. Vote yes.

Prop. 63: This feel-good initiative would increase the personal income tax on the ultra-rich, those earning more than $1 million, by 1 percent to raise about $800 million a year for expanded health services for mentally ill people of all ages. And certainly the situation is desperate, with the mentally ill, many of them homeless, falling through a safety net that is in tatters. But, like Prop. 61 above, this is simply bad budget policy. There are many other good causes that could benefit from such a tax hike. Decisions such as these should be decided in the legislative process, not at the ballot box. Vote no.

Prop. 64: This effort to stem frivolous lawsuits throws out the baby—protecting the public—with the bathwater. Yes, the state’s unfair-business-competition law needs to be changed in order to protect small businesses from unscrupulous shakedown artists—lawyers who file frivolous suits seeking only to squeeze out a settlement. But this measure would cut off all unfair-business-competition lawsuits, even those filed for good reason. By requiring plaintiffs to prove monetary losses up front, it would eliminate public-benefit lawsuits that, for example, might seek to stop a company from selling a dangerous product. And it would require the state attorney general, district attorneys and city attorneys who do sue to use the settlement proceeds exclusively for “the enforcement of consumer protection laws"—an unnecessarily limiting use of the funds. Vote no.

Prop. 65: This measure designed to keep the state from raiding local-government coffers was put on the ballot by the League of California Cities before the cities, counties and schools reached their budget compromise agreement with Gov. Schwarzenegger that resulted in Prop. 1A. Even its original sponsors have disavowed it. Vote no.

Prop. 66: Studies have shown that when voters passed the three-strikes bill in 1994, most didn’t realize that it could put people in prison for life for petty theft. This measure would correct that by stating explicitly that a person’s third strike be a violent or serious felony to warrant life in prison. Other, less serious felonies would be sentenced according to their degree of seriousness. We recommend a yes vote.

Prop. 67: In another flawed approach to money-raising, this measure would impose a 3-percent surcharge on telephone bills to cover the seemingly unrelated need of hospital emergency services. Why a phone tax? No good reason, actually. Worse, the bill provides little in the way of transparency when it comes to how the $500 million raised will be spent. It’s certainly true that ERs around the state are in trouble, but this is no way to solve the problem. Vote no.

Prop. 68: Touted as a way to squeeze money out of the Indian casinos, in reality this is a brazen attempt to extend gaming to urban areas. Even its original sponsors, racetrack and card room operators, have backed off, realizing that voters were wise to their bait-and-switch gimmick and the measure was headed for defeat. Vote no.

Prop. 69: This measure would allow a DNA sample to be collected from anyone arrested for a felony, whether convicted or not. If not, you’d have to jump through all sorts of legal hoops to get it removed from the database. As the Los Angeles Times notes, rather mildly, “The measure clouds the presumption that one is innocent until proven guilty.” Not good. Vote no.

Prop. 70: This measure, backed by five wealthy casino-owning tribes in Southern California, would allow unlimited gaming, including the now-prohibited craps and roulette, on Indian-owned lands in return for the tribes paying an 8.25 percent tax on corporate earnings. The money would be welcome, but there are enough casinos in California already. Help put a stop to this proliferation by voting no.

Prop. 71: The bad news about this controversial bill, which would fund stem-cell research, is that, while it would generate $3 billion, it would cost $6 billion to repay over time. As with Prop. 61, it would add to the burden of future debt. Unlike 61, however, no payments would be due for five years, and in that time it could very possibly foster a lucrative industry in California, one whose jobs and revenues could more than make up for this investment cost. And the benefits to society from embryonic stem-cell research are potentially huge: cures for juvenile diabetes and Parkinson’s disease, enabling paraplegics to walk again. Finally, California voters can look at Prop. 71 as a wonderful opportunity to thumb their collective nose at President Bush, whose pandering to his anti-abortion base has so drastically limited stem-cell research until now. Vote yes.

Prop. 72: This initiative is a referendum on SB 2, a bill passed in the last days of the Davis administration mandating that companies with 50 or more employees provide health insurance to their workers beginning in 2007. The goal—to cover more people—is laudable, but this bill does nothing to repair the horrendously screwed-up health insurance and health care systems in California. It would just make it harder to do business in California by micromanaging the kinds of decisions best left to the marketplace. Better at this point to scrap the employer-based insurance system altogether and start over. Vote no to overturn SB 2.

Measure D: This is both a consumer protest and an environmental-protection ordinance. By prohibiting the growing of genetically engineered crops in Butte County, it would protect the county’s many organic farmers, as well as other non-GMO growers, from accidental crop contamination. It would also send a resounding message from consumers angry and frustrated that food products using such crops are not labeled and that scientists are tinkering with Mother Nature in potentially disastrous ways. We recommend a yes vote.

Measure O: The people of Paradise are caught by the short hairs on this one. Either they approve the measure and get a big shopping center right at the Skyway entrance to town—and reap the sales-tax revenues it will generate, by the way, which Paradise desperately needs—or they vote not to “pave over Paradise” and leave the land’s fate, and any potential revenue, in the hands of the pro-development county Board of Supervisors. What do you do when doing the right thing could make matters worse? We have no idea and don’t live in Paradise, so we make no recommendation. Good luck, folks.

Measure H: This commonsense charter change recommended by the Charter Review Committee would make the legal age for serving on the Chico City Council the same as the voting age, 18 years old. Vote yes.

Measure I: This measure, also recommended by the Charter Review Committee, would set council members’ and the mayor’s salaries at the level mandated by state law for them in general-law cities of the same size. That amount is $500 per month, with the mayor receiving an additional 20 percent, or $600 total. Serving on the council is a tough job that takes a lot of time. We should let council members know we appreciate their service by paying them at least as much as their colleagues in similar cities. Vote yes.

Measure J: As we learned this year when Councilwoman Coleen Jarvis died in office, the city charter mandates that, if the council can’t agree on a replacement, a special election must be held, even if a regular election is coming right up. This commonsense measure changes that by requiring an election only if the seat will be vacated for more than six months. Vote yes.

Measure K: This charter change gives the City Council the option of preparing a two-year instead of one-year budget, a potential money-saver. Vote yes.