Midas in reverse

Multimillion-dollar campaigns can’t fool all the people all the time

With the media seemingly reporting each day on the tide of spending being unleashed over Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed reforms, aimed at a probable November special election, it’s time to consider what Californians have done in the past about “reform” measures that attracted massive spending.

I get the distinct impression that most media think of voters as poor, pathetic victims who cannot wade through the information thrown at them to find the true, decent, sensible proposals on the ballot.

Well, yes and no.

Recently, a well-known California journalist I know, clearly angry about all the ballot measures coming our way, asked me during a casual conversation if I agreed that November was going to be a hideous new record in excessive spending.

After all, Schwarzenegger’s camp is trying to raise $50 million for his reforms in education, government pensions, voter-district gerrymandering and budget overspending. The other side—the AFL-CIO, huge teacher unions and a lot of the very same political moneybags who poured millions into opposing the Gray Davis recall—are trying to raise $50 million to stop Schwarzenegger’s ideas and are writing up all sorts of reforms of their own.

Despite media overhype, this special election will be neither the longest ballot tossed at voters nor the most complex. We have a short memory in California about the Midas-like spending machines that pour in tens of millions of dollars even to push a single ballot measure.

Take heart from the fact that during these past gargantuan struggles at the ballot box, voters were not mere dupes. According to the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California, voters approve only about 41 percent of ballot measures on average. Voters are naturally wary.

Bob Stern, a respected liberal who heads the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, told me, “Basically, the theory is that you can defeat an initiative with money—but you can’t necessarily pass one with money. That’s just a general rule. Lots of money doesn’t mean a win, but if you have lots of money, and the other side doesn’t, you can probably stop a measure.”

As Stern noted, even that does not always hold true.

Ballot measures that recently attracted Midas-level spending included Propositions 26 and 39, back in 2000. Silicon Valley gazillionaire John Doerr and his rich high-tech friends (including Reed Hastings, the brilliant Democrat recently tossed off the state Board of Education) poured more than $20 million into Proposition 26 in the spring of 2000—more than some states spend on an entire election.

They wanted California voters to lower the required public vote to pass school construction bonds. In opposition, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association spent about one-tenth of what Doerr’s moneyed Silicon Valley pals spent.

California voters agreed with the Jarvis folks—they did not want to lower the public’s vote below two-thirds to approve school bonds. Taxpayer aversion to throwing more money at California’s anti-reform schools was the deciding factor, not the millions Doerr and company spent. Taxpayers wanted to see improvements in achievement before they spent even more money on schools.

But Doerr and the billionaires feared that without lots of new schools, California test scores would stay in the toilet. So, they spent millions on a second ballot measure that very fall, called Proposition 39.

This time, the billionaires were helped by the California attorney general. The attorney general wrote a bizarre ballot description that did not mention that the new law would lower the existing two-thirds vote for school bonds. Instead, the ballot measure merely stated that school bonds could be approved with a 55-percent vote of the public.

Joel Fox, formerly with Jarvis and now on the team promoting ballot measures backed by Schwarzenegger, recalled, “We suspect some California voters thought the 55-percent threshold in the description was raising the voter threshold, not lowering it. Some people didn’t know what they were voting for.”

All it took was a little sneaky action by the attorney general to muddle the issue.

Sadly, all the new spending unleashed by Proposition 39 has not produced better schools, largely because sparkling new schools have zero effect on learning, as the math-teaching genius Jaime Escalante proved years ago at his aging high school in East Los Angeles, jammed with 40 kids per class. California’s many new schools are stuck with the same undereducated but well-paid “certified” teachers who can’t teach math—or reading.

But at least Doerr was trying to help. We’ve seen many ballot “reforms” in which helping California is not the goal—protecting the status quo is.

Take Proposition 56, largely underwritten two years ago by the California Teachers Association (CTA)—one of the richest unions in the United States. The CTA controls millions of dollars from teacher dues, in a war chest so fat that the CTA regularly buys radio ads to tell us that California’s teachers, the highest paid in the nation, need more money.

The Proposition 56 crowd spent roughly $15 million to persuade voters to allow the Legislature to raise state taxes with a 55-percent vote instead of the historically required two-thirds. Voters didn’t bite. The measure was defeated, and the $15 million spent out of teacher dues and other sources vanished into the night.

Another self-motivated biggie was Proposition 34 in 2001. This was a “reform” to place a $20,000 limit on campaign donations to politicians. Among the Republicans and Democrats in Sacramento, only two state senators voted against putting the Proposition 34 “reform” on the ballot.

So, right away, you knew it stank to high heaven.

Voters got duped this time. It sounded OK to put at least some limit on the crazy campaign giving, even if the limit was $20,000. Few voters seemed to know that Proposition 34 was written by self-interested legislators solely to override a strict campaign-finance law approved by voters, known as Proposition 208.

I blame the media for this one. Although most journalists knew exactly what was up, journalists I knew at the time were bored by explaining to the public how Proposition 34 would wipe out Proposition 208. Lazy journalists covered it like a tedious “inside baseball” story.

It was hardly that. When I wrote about the fake Proposition 34 reform for the now-defunct New Times Los Angeles, my phone rang off the hook from Los Angeles residents unaware of the scam. As Stern told me recently, “It was designed by the Legislature with the clear intent to stop the reforms approved by voters in Proposition 208. It was to stop stricter reform.”

Proposition 34 was promoted by former state Senator John Burton of San Francisco and former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg of Sherman Oaks. Hertzberg, who I’ve always liked, told me back then that Proposition 34 was “genuine reform” that would “curtail insane spending on campaigns.”

In fact, it was designed to empower the fund-raising abilities of Governor Gray Davis. Its authors never dreamed a Republican governor soon would be in office using Proposition 34 to raise his own millions of dollars.

I find that humorous. Certainly ironic. Now, there’s a huge squabble over whether Schwarzenegger can go around raising unlimited sums for ballot measures, which are not limited by Proposition 34. How dare he use a phony law written by and designed for exploitation by Democrats? The nerve!

Another doozy was the “reform” measure known as Proposition 45. It would have gutted California term limits. Like Proposition 39, it also relied heavily upon a muddy, weird ballot description to trick voters.

Proposition 45 was supported with roughly $6 million from big tobacco, organized labor, the liquor industry, top Democrats, the energy industry and other big purses. In its fine print, it would have allowed any politician in California to go out and gather signatures to allow that particular politician to ignore California’s term limits.

The trickster wording in Proposition 45 said it would allow any “citizen” to gather petitions to toss out term limits if the “citizen” wanted a particular politician to stay in office.

Had Proposition 45 been approved, it would have set off an incredible crush of year-round fund-raising by politicians (i.e., “citizens”) to gather petitions in order to exempt themselves from term limits. My God, what a mess that would have been.

Stern, of the Center for Governmental Studies, recalled, “Prop. 45 was a phony thing—just such a phony measure.”

You get the idea. Complex ballot measures aimed at “reforming” the way we govern ourselves attract millions of dollars. Some are real reform, and some are fake. In 1988, we had 29 ballot measures. In 1990, we had 28. Those were the so-called long-ballot years. There are surely more to come.

This is how we govern ourselves, for better or worse. This summer and fall, cash will flow in rivers. It will come from rich teacher unions, Schwarzenegger’s fund-raising team, the AFL-CIO, the Chamber of Commerce and the national Democratic Party.

As always, some reforms are being designed to help California, and some are being designed only to help their authors. The media tend to focus more heat than light on ballot measures, so voters have to figure out which is which.

Yes, voters have been tricked before. But more often, they spot the hype. So, fasten your seatbelts, everybody. And best of luck.