Fall crop of emotional ballot measures
All the emotional and intellectual energy in this spring’s primary election campaign focused on congressional and legislative races, where a rare combination of new rules and new district maps produced some entirely new kinds of results, with many upcoming runoff races featuring intra-party battles pitting Democrat against Democrat and Republican against Republican.
It was difficult for most voters to get excited about the two initiatives on the June ballot, one to tweak term limits for state legislators and the other to impose a sharp increase in the cigarette tax. Unless you were personally involved as either a politician or a smoker, neither of these measures aroused much emotion.
But that will change radically in the fall campaign, when there won’t be much excitement or suspense about which presidential candidate will carry California. Emotions and campaign spending around the votes for Congress and the Legislature will, as usual, run high only in places with close contests. But oh, the propositions.
If you thought the $47 million tobacco companies spent on saturating the airwaves in the weeks leading up to the primary was something to behold, wait ‘til you see the spending this fall.
The slate of as-yet-unnumbered initiatives coming up in November is about critical issues of life and death, taxes and insurance rates, crime and punishment, political survival and slavery. Could things get much more emotional?
Take the health insurance rate control initiative placed on the ballot by the Consumer Watchdog advocacy group, which worked with Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones last year in trying to get similar controls through the Legislature.
When that effort failed, the group raised more than $1 million to take its petitions to the streets and big-box stores, where it easily gathered the signatures needed to put controls on the ballot. This spurred a feud between two of the state’s best-known liberal activists, Consumer Watchdog founder and attorney Harvey Rosenfield and Steve Maviglio, a former gubernatorial press secretary who now runs his own political consulting firm.
Each side accuses the other of greed and prevarication, but the bottom line is that Rosenfield seeks rate controls on health insurance similar to those his 1988 Proposition 103 imposed on car insurance. That measure has saved consumers about $10 billion since, and health insurers will spend tens of millions of dollars to keep their profits at the present astronomical levels rather than let consumers have similar savings on healthcare coverage.
Consumer Watchdog will also be trying to beat back a second effort by Mercury Insurance and its principal owner, George Joseph, to penalize drivers who let their car insurance lapse by charging them higher rates when they return, with few excuses allowed for dropping coverage even for a short time. Mercury tried the same thing two years ago, but lost.
Meanwhile, labor unions will spend heavily trying to fight off the third attempt in the last 15 years at restricting their use of union dues for political purposes. If the latest Tea Party-backed “Paycheck Protection” plan passes, it would assure a political playing field tilted toward corporations, so long as they don’t need to ask shareholders’ permission for making political donations. This one could worsen the mess created by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, that allows unlimited political spending by corporations.
Then there are the tax-the-rich measures placed on the ballot by Gov. Jerry Brown and the fabulously wealthy civil rights lawyer and activist, Molly Munger, daughter of Warren Buffett partner Charles Munger. Both measures will spur huge spending and bitter debate as anti-tax forces claim government deserves no more money, while backers claim the levies are needed to save public schools and many other vital government programs.
This ballot will also feature an effort to end the death penalty in California and another seeking to greatly increase the penalties for human trafficking. And there will be a measure to reform the state’s three-strikes-and-you’re-out sentencing law, making it apply only to violent crimes and letting some lesser criminals go free who have languished for years under 25-year-to-life terms.
There’s also an attempt to force multi-state and multi-national corporations to pay taxes based on their sales within California, rather than offering them the current set of alternative bookkeeping methods. Closing that loophole could bring the state $1 billion or more in a move the Legislature has rejected several times. Part of the new money would be earmarked for research and development of alternative fuel and energy sources.
All of which means it will be hard to remain an uninterested bystander this fall, since most Californians will probably feel strongly about more than one initiative on this slate, not to mention the Republican referendum aiming to nix the new district maps for state Senate districts.
The spring, then, was a brief vacation from ballot-box lawmaking, but the state returns this fall to its normal situation, where voters and not politicians make the truly important policy decisions.