|Sensible opinions on the California ballot propositions since 1980 by Pete Stahl|
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Prop. 50 - YES
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Proposition 1A: High-Speed Rail Bonds ($10 billion) – YES
(Please see My Semi-Biennial Lecture on Bonds for my opinion on bonds in general.)
Would you like to zip across California at 220 MPH? To tunnel through mountains and glide through cities? To embark and arrive at futuristic stations straight out of The Jetsons? Of course you would!
The California High-Speed Rail Project hopes to link northern and southern California with sleek, clean-running, super-fast passenger trains. The first terminals will be in Los Angeles and San Francisco, with eventual lines to San Diego, Irvine and Sacramento. The electricity that powers the trains will come from windmills and other renewable, non-polluting sources. Judging by the fabulous animations on the Rail Authority's site, the stations will be breathtaking transit cathedrals with high-arched Plexiglas canopies.
The estimated cost for the LA-to-SF line is $33 billion. Prop 1A will provide $9 billion in bond money to get the project started. Washington is expected to add $10 billion, and public-private partnerships may kick in as much as $7 billion.
Uh oh. That adds up to only $26 billion. Where's the rest of the funding?
Okay, let's concede the point up front: Prop 1A will get us only part of the way there. In all but the most unlikely scenarios, voters will have to pass another large bond measure in a few years in order for the promised SF-to-LA line to become a reality.
It kills me that no one seems willing to admit this. Even with the addition of federal and private funds, this proposition cannot possibly build the promised high-speed rail system. We will all feel horribly manipulated in a few years when, after massive construction has started, we must vote again for more bond money. I am livid at the proponents for what is either a denial of reality or a bald-faced deceit.
But my regular readers will remember that you should never oppose a measure because of what it doesn't do. So let's examine what Prop 1A can do.
Realistically, here's what I see happening if Prop 1A passes. The federal government will kick in $10 billion, but the credit crunch will make it impossible for public-private partnerships to raise more than a couple billion. With just $21 billion available, the project will be scaled back to the highest mile-per-dollar segments, meaning rural areas where rights-of-way are cheaper and fewer grade separations are needed. So the first segment will link, say, Palmdale in the south to Gilroy in the north. When that's completed, around 2016, you'll be able to travel the 300-mile leg in ninety minutes. Metrolink and CalTrain will provide express service from the high-speed terminals to LA and SF, thanks in part to the $950 million in Prop 1A that's dedicated to existing commuter rail lines. So the total trip from LA to SF could take as little as four hours. Power for the trains may need to come from conventional generators instead of wind at first, and stations may be rather plain.
At that point, I predict it will become obvious that high-speed rail is real, and that it makes sense to spend billions more to extend it into major cities. Further bond measures will pass easily, and by 2024 we could indeed be shooting from San Jose to Burbank in two hours.
Two things make me think it will be clear that high-speed rail is worth all that money. First, this type of system has been a huge success in Europe, particularly in Spain, where the terrain and population density are quite similar to California's. Their high-speed rail system began in the mid-1990s with a 300-mile line from Madrid to Seville. Reliability is so high that the system refunds riders' fares if trains are even six minutes late. The recently opened Madrid-to-Barcelona line is so popular that it has already taken 30% of the travel market away from the airlines.
Second, people will start to consider what will happen if we don't build a high-speed rail system over the coming decades. California's population will continue to grow, of course, so travel between north and south will only increase. Without high-speed rail, there will be more congestion, more pollution, more frustration, and more traffic accidents. We'll be trying to get by in the 21st century with 20th-century tools. It will be like trying to survive in the 20th century with horse-and-buggy technology.
California is one of the world's leading economies. Our competitors around the globe, from Japan and China to France and Spain, have developed high-speed rail. Should we join them, or should we pretend that our highway system will be adequate in the mid-21st century? Yes, the required investment is huge, but that's what it will take to keep California thriving.
Proposition 2: Elbow (Wing, Trotter) Room for Farm Animals – YES
Never ask how the sausage is made.
So it is with industrialized meat and egg production in twenty-first century America. In the name of maximizing production and efficiency, farmers treat animals not as live creatures but as manufacturing units. They tinker with breeding, diet, housing density, medications, mutilation, and "retirement age" in pursuit of the highest per-unit production of bacon, veal, and eggs. It's no different from factories in any other competitive industry, except that here the "machinery" is alive. Fitting as many cans as possible into a case is efficient business practice, but forcing as many hens as possible to live in a small wire cage is cruel and immoral.
Robert Digitale of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, whose territory includes egg capital Petaluma, describes a typical egg operation:
"Those voters who get their idea of egg production mostly from Foghorn Leghorn cartoons would be astonished to see the real thing. In an era of high-tech efficiency and fears of avian influenza, only a sliver of the nation's egg production occurs in the barnyard or the chicken coop. Nearly all egg-laying hens, both caged and cage-free, spend their lives inside large barns and warehouses. Bred for egg production, not meat, the hens typically live less than two years and are then disposed of. About 95 percent of the state's egg-laying hens live in cages. A typical cage ... measures 27 inches wide, 24 inches deep and 16 inches high. It normally holds eight chickens."
The marvelous Michael Pollan, in The Omnivore's Dilemma, clues us into why these conditions are so atrocious:
"Broiler chickens ... at least don't spend their eight-week lives in cages too small to ever stretch a wing. That fate is reserved for the American laying hen, who passes her brief span piled together with a half-dozen other hens in a wire cage whose floor a single page of this magazine could carpet. Every natural instinct of this animal is thwarted, leading to a range of behavioral ‘vices' that can include cannibalizing her cagemates and rubbing her body against the wire mesh until it is featherless and bleeding. Pain? Suffering? Madness? The operative suspension of disbelief depends on more neutral descriptors, like ‘vices' and ‘stress.' Whatever you want to call what's going on in those cages, the 10 percent or so of hens that can't bear it and simply die is built into the cost of production."
Prop 2 is your way to stop this abuse. It will require California farmers to provide enough space for egg-laying fowl, pregnant pigs, and veal calves so that they can turn around and extend their limbs without hitting another animal.
Prop 2 is remarkably narrow in scope. It applies only to sows while pregnant (not after giving birth), calves for veal (not beef or dairy), and hens kept for eggs (not meat). There are numerous exceptions, such as for scientific research, transportation, county fairs, 4-H programs, and even rodeos. Far from being an animal-rights activist's dream, Prop 2 is just a modest step, aimed at only the worst abuses in the meat and egg industry. And it doesn't go into effect until 2015, giving producers six years to comply.
You might think that Prop 2 will drive up the price of eggs. After all, to comply with Prop 2, most California egg producers will have to build more henhouses or reduce the size of their flocks. Either way, the production cost per egg in this state will rise, so naturally prices should follow.
But guess what: California today imports half its eggs from out of state. And here's where it gets sticky. A UC Davis study suggests that the out-of-state producers currently meeting 50% of our demand can ramp up their production and shipping capacity over the next six years so they can meet 100% when Prop 2 goes into effect. The study predicts that California producers, hamstrung by the restrictions in Prop 2, won't be able to compete on price, and will simply go out of business. So, if Prop 2 passes, the eggs at your supermarket may have been laid in a different time zone, but you won't notice any difference in price. Yay!
But wait. Won't those out-of-state farms be successful precisely because they use the same cruel, inhumane methods we're trying to ban with Prop 2? If the UC Davis study's prediction is accurate, won't we simply have shifted the animal abuse from California to other locations, with no real improvement in conditions for millions of hens?
Sadly, the answer will be "yes" as long as consumers continue to shop for price only, and blind themselves to whether their savings were made possible by slave labor, or a depleted fishery, or a bloody war, or animal cruelty.
But there are encouraging signs everywhere you look. Today, millions of Californians refuse to buy immorally produced food. We eschew dolphin-unsafe tuna, crate-raised veal, and farm-raised salmon. We gladly pay slightly higher prices for organic produce, locally-grown vegetables, and recyclable drink containers. Want evidence? Look no farther than the crowds at your local Whole Foods Market.
If Prop 2 passes, all California eggs will be humanely produced. I predict that a significant and growing segment of grocery customers will know to look for the California label, starting with the five million people who voted to pass the measure. The effect of Prop 2 will not be to kill the California egg industry, but rather to convert it to producing a more valuable commodity: eggs that we can feel good about buying. I'm not saying it will be easy or painless for the industry, but many manufacturers will survive and thrive along with their hens.
Finally, there's the possibility that Prop 2 will spark a movement to limit cruelty to food-producing animals nationwide. It wouldn't be the first time California led the way. If we can convince others that animal cruelty is worth fighting, we will really have achieved something impressive.
Proposition 3: Children's Hospital Bonds ($1 billion) – NO
Prop 3 is a larger version of Prop 61 from 2004, which passed despite my opposition. Here's a rerun of that rating, with the numbers changed for the new proposal.
(Please see My Semi-Biennial Lecture on Bonds for my opinion on bonds in general.)
What?! Really?? How can I possibly be against helping sick and injured children? What kind of heartless monster am I?
Let's back up and get a little perspective. Prop 3 will provide $980 million for renovation and expansion of children's hospitals throughout the state. These hospitals serve millions of sick and injured kids, and have not been able to keep up with the growth in our child population. The Children's Hospital and Health Care Center in San Diego, for example, recently had to handle 65,000 emergency visits a year in a facility designed for 25,000. There's no dispute about the need for larger and better children's hospitals.
Unlike state mental hospitals and county general hospitals, which are all government-run, children's hospitals in our state are privately owned and operated (except for five affiliated with University of California medical schools). And that's where the doubt about Prop 3 creeps in.
In my Semi-Biennial Lecture on Bonds, I assert that bonds are the appropriate way for the state to fund tangible acquisitions that will be used far into the future. Prop 3, however, specifies that 80% of its proceeds, or $784 million, be donated to private hospitals. Usually when the state issues bonds, it can expect in return a school, a bridge, or a sewage treatment plant. What will the state get for that $784 million in Prop 3? Nada. Any new construction becomes property of the private children's hospitals.
This is simply inappropriate use of our tax dollars. If California is going to spend $64 million a year for 30 years, as it will under Prop 3, I want the state to have something to show for it. The private 80% of Prop 3 will buy the state nothing.
To be sure, private children's hospitals are tremendously beneficial. They perform miracles daily. Yet so do other private institutions, such as churches, private schools, and the Salvation Army, and it would be inappropriate for the state to fund their expansion. So why should children's hospitals receive special treatment?
In fact, many of the arguments against school vouchers apply here. One of the major recipients of Prop 3 funds will likely be Loma Linda University Children's Hospital, a Seventh-Day Adventist facility whose vision is "Innovating excellence in Christ-centered health care." Such hospitals have religious objections to unionization of workers, and are reported to limit access to abortion, contraception and AIDS-related information and services. We don't allow public funding of private schools that prohibit unions and the teaching of evolution, so why should we fund private hospitals that do essentially the same thing?
The private, non-profit corporations that run these hospitals are not shy about supporting Prop 3. And why should they be? Their return on investment will be huge. Eight hospitals have given $135,000 apiece, totaling over $1 million. Among these are Loma Linda, Lucille Packard in Palo Alto, Rady in San Diego, Miller's in Long Beach, and the children's hospitals in Los Angeles, Madera, Oakland, and Orange County. The grants these hospitals will receive in return will be as high as $98 million. That's a sweet 73,000% ROI, for those of you into accounting.
I hate to characterize Prop 3 as a "buy-a-law", because the private institutions that stand to profit are so beneficial to the state. But in essence, Prop 3 asks the state to fund private entities with public money. I have real trouble endorsing a measure that gives so much long-term, interest-burdened money irrevocably to private institutions.
Proposition 4: Parental Notification for Minors Getting Abortions (Yet Again) – NO
Prop 4 is essentially identical to the failed Props 85 and 73 from 2006 and 2005, respectively. I recommended "no" votes then, and I recommend a "no" vote now. Here's a rerun of the rating I gave last time, with a few changes. (Believe me, it took a lot of willpower to resist adding Bristol Palin.)
Prop 4 is about minors who become pregnant. These teenage girls are already under the ordinary pressures of adolescence in our high-intensity culture. Now they face the embarrassment of revealed sexual activity, a strained relationship with the presumptive father, and God-knows-what from their parents. On top of all that is the life-changing decision of whether to terminate the pregnancy, carry it to term and raise the baby, or give it up for adoption. It's a dizzying prospect.
Most girls in this situation can count on their parents for steadfast support and sound advice. But many cannot. Domestic violence is a fact, and adolescent pregnancy is intricately intertwined with it. According to a 2001 report by the Center for Assessment and Policy Development and the National Organization on Adolescent Pregnancy, Parenting and Prevention,
"Evidence suggests that no fewer than a quarter of adolescent mothers experience some form of interpersonal violence in the year surrounding their pregnancy, with some studies reporting rates of 50 to 80 percent."
Prop 4 would require physicians to notify a parent, legal guardian, or other adult family member, and wait 48 hours before they perform abortions on girls under 18. If a girl is fearful of her parents, Prop 4 allows her to go to juvenile court, where a temporary guardian and attorney will ask a judge to waive parental notification.
Now put yourself in the shoes of a pregnant 17-year-old who needs this waiver. You're in desperate trouble. You may already have experienced violence. You can't let your family know. Will you go to Juvenile Hall for help? Is that the key to safety? It just isn't plausible.
Prop 4 will cause many scared adolescents to go outside the system to avoid notifying their families. They'll go to neighboring states if they can (as now happens where there are notification laws, according to a USC study). Or they'll pursue back-alley abortions, with the attendant risk of medical complications and death.
Or they'll give up and carry the baby to term. This, of course, is the outcome supporters of Prop 4 are after. Because at its core, Prop 4 is a Pro-Life law, intended to prevent as many abortions as possible.
Prop 4 is a roadblock to safe, legal abortion. It will lead to more domestic violence, more back-alley abortions, and more unwanted pregnancies carried to term. There is no upside. Vote no.
Proposition 5: Rehab Instead of Prison for Nonviolent Drug Crimes – YES
Remember the War on Drugs? Well, it's over, and drugs won. (Is that Bill Maher's line? Help me out here.)
It turns out that the military solution to drug addiction, including herbicide spraying in Bolivia and Coast Guard interdictions, is as futile as it is expensive. And the criminal solution, throwing drug users into prison by the thousand, does nothing to reduce addiction.
What we need instead is some kind of solution that addresses the demand side of the equation. And I don't mean "Just Say No." I mean reducing addiction levels through drug rehab. This is not a military or criminal solution—it is a medical solution, and it's the only solution known to get results.
Prop 5 will reduce the pointless incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders, and instead offer them rehabilitation and a meaningful chance to break the cycle of addiction and arrest. And it will make significant dent in our prison overcrowding problem.
Prop 5 has four main components. First, it will expand the adult treatment programs in lieu of prison that have been in place since we approved Prop 36 in 2000. Prop 5 creates three levels of care and supervision for nonviolent drug offenders, based on their criminal history and drug problem severity. A mix of incentives and consequences, including hard jail time, will encourage completion of treatment. Prop 36 has been a great success, with over 80,000 people completing treatment programs in its first seven years. It makes good sense to build on this.
Second, Prop 5 will mandate local sanctions instead of prison to punish minor parole violations by nonviolent offenders. This will further reduce strain on the prison system. Also, parolees and former parolees will continue to receive rehabilitation services to help them stay clean as they return to society.
Third, possession of less than one ounce of marijuana will change from a misdemeanor to an infraction, with a maximum fine of $100 for adults, and mandatory drug education classes for minors. This low level of punishment for small amounts is appropriate for the severity of the crime. And it is a concrete first step away from the military/criminal solution that has proven so ineffective.
Finally, Prop 5 creates drug treatment and other support programs for at-risk youth. No such services exist now for people under 18. Prop 5 will set up network of drug treatment programs for young people, who could be referred to treatment by family members, school counselors or physicians. Services would also be available for youth on probation or involved with the juvenile justice system. Obviously a lot of drug users begin before they turn 18. Prop 5 recognizes this, and may help nip many addictions in the bud.
California's prison population has been growing rapidly. It was 100,000 as recently as 1990, but now tops 170,000. The prisons, which were designed to hold about 83,000, are bursting at the seams. To handle demands that exceed 200% of intended capacity, inmates are stacked three-high everywhere, including areas never intended to house people. It's cruel and inhumane, just as the problems addressed by Prop 2, but here we're dealing with human beings, not farm animals.
Prop 5 will reduce the severity of this awful overcrowding. Roughly 30,000 inmates are in prison for nonviolent drug offenses. It is estimated that Prop 5 will allow this number to be reduced by about 18,000, or 10% of the total prison population. It's not nearly enough, but it's progress. And those 18,000 nonviolent offenders will be much better served by rehab than incarceration; we'll all be better off because of that.
I haven't even mentioned the really cool part of Prop 5. Even though it expands expensive drug treatment and starts up a new youth program, Prop 5 is expected to produce a net savings in the billions due to the reduction in the prison population. Considering all the beneficial effects outlined above, and the boost it will give toward a rational, medical solution to our drug problem, I wholeheartedly endorse this proposition.
Proposition 6: Local Law Enforcement Spending Requirement – NO
Prop 6 is a spending mandate. It will require the state legislature to budget $965 million a year, increasing annually, for an assortment of local law enforcement, juvenile, offender rehabilitation, and victim assistance programs. Today these receive about $600 million, so Prop 6 represents a 61% bump.
As my regular readers know, I'm allergic to budget set-asides like this. Prop 98 (1988) requires the state to spend over $50 billion a year on education. Prop 42 (2002) stipulates $1.2 billion must go for transportation; Prop 49 (2002) steers half a billion into after-school programs; and Prop 63 (2004) sets aside $800 million for mental health services. With all this budgeting through the ballot box, there's less and less room for the legislature to accommodate unexpected economic conditions, natural disasters, homeland security, and other surprises. A report by the California Budget Project concludes that "using a very minimal definition of mandatory spending, approximately two-thirds of state spending is mandatory and one third (35 percent) is discretionary ... In reality, the Legislature is much more constrained." With measures like Prop 6, it will only get worse.
These propositions can impose absurd priorities on state spending. Who really believes that after-school programs are more important than roads, hospitals, or clean water? Nobody. Yet Prop 49 forces the legislature to fund after-school programs before it considers more vital things, every single year. These permanent spending mandates just don't make sense.
Does Prop 6 provide any new income for all this new spending? No, it does not. The measure simply requires the legislature to allocate a larger portion of the budget to its pet programs. What isn't stated is that the new spending will necessarily come at the expense of other programs. So if you vote for Prop 6, you're also voting against everything else that will have its funding cut as a result.
In addition to its spending mandate, Prop 6 also contains a sugar coating that proponents hope will distract you from the distasteful parts so you'll swallow their arguments. This confectionery consists of toughening laws against methamphetamine and gang-related activities. Prop 6's authors want you to feel so good about yourself for sticking it to the bad guys that you'll ignore their outrageous, unfunded mandate. Please show them that you're more intelligent than that. Otherwise we'll continue to see this kind of subterfuge on every ballot from here to eternity.
Proposition 7: Renewable Energy Targets for All Utilities – NO
Note: This rating was updated on October 24th, after friendly readers pointed out an error in my original rating. Thanks, readers!
It's hard to hate Prop 7. Its heart is in the right place, but it's written so clumsily that if it passes, it will cause nothing but trouble. If good intentions were enough, I'd recommend Prop 7 in an instant. Sadly, we can't pass ballot propositions based on how cute and cuddly they are. This one doesn't pass muster.
Prop 7 seeks to accelerate renewable electricity production in California, thereby helping us reduce both global warming and dependence on foreign oil. The measure sets a goal to produce 50% of in-state electricity from renewable sources by 2025, and extends the requirement to all utilities, not just those that are publicly owned. Seems good so far.
I originally opposed Prop 7 based on an incorrect reading of the initiative. A cascade of definitions in the measure seems to imply that only facilities producing 30 megawatts or more would count toward the 50% target. If true, this would exclude rooftop solar and other small, local electricity sources, which would be an awful waste. However, it turns out that the 30MW restriction applies only to the definition of "solar and clean energy plant" proposed for the Public Utilities Code for purposes of fast-tracking large projects. The 50% target, on the other hand, could be fulfilled by any "solar and clean energy facility" as defined in the Public Resources Code. So no 30MW minimum. All better.
Or is it? Unfortunately, the authors of Prop 7 neglected to define "solar and clean energy facility" anywhere. It's unclear whether this will be resolved in the courts or by the Legislature. This kind of sloppiness makes me wonder whether there are more bombs hidden in the measure's 12,000 words.
A more important charge against Prop 7 is that it reinforces the current, inefficient model of large-scale electricity generation, requiring costly long-distance transmission lines to deliver juice to consumers. While Prop 7 will count all clean electricity toward the 50% goal, it gives special treatment to large solar-thermal plants in the desert, offering fast-track approval and 20-year contracts at 10% above market rates. The Alameda Green Party (I think) put it this way:
If Prop 7 fails, we are still likely to see an increase in the target for renewable electricity generation. The energy program of the League of Women Voters of California, directed by my late friend Jane Turnbull, reported that:
You might think that any proposition that wants to increase renewable power generation must be good for the environment, regardless of any warts. You'd be wrong. Here's what the enviornmentally-conscious Sierra Club says:
And, at the forefront of the fight against global warming, the Union of Concerned Scientists says:
If it were possible to fix all the flaws in Prop 7 and keep the good parts, I could recommend voting for it. But it's a ballot proposition, so the only way to change it is with another ballot proposition or a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. We've just seen how impossible it is to get that many legislators to agree on anything.
Proposition 8: Ban on Gay Marriage – NO
It seems that many people oppose gay marriage on the basis of semantics. The same word, "marriage", is used both by the government, to connote legal union for financial and other purposes, and also by religions, to refer to holy matrimony under God. So when the California Supreme Court ruled in May that same-sex couples had the legal right to marry, quite a few people misconstrued this to mean that their church, temple or mosque now must give its blessing to gay unions. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.
It sure would be great if we could give each meaning of "marriage" its own word. Maybe we could make up a new term for the financial/legal meaning, and let religions do what they want with the original word.
In fact, you might think we've already done this by designating civil unions as domestic partnerships. Well, it is true that within California, "registered domestic partners shall have the same rights, protections, and benefits, and shall be subject to the same responsibilities, obligations, and duties ... as are granted to and imposed upon spouses." But that's just within California. Over one thousand federal laws, covering such things as federal income tax, Social Security and Medicare, apply only to “married” couples; no substitute terms are accepted. (Yes, the Defense of Marriage Act  ostensibly prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage, but this has yet to be tested in court. It will eventually fall, just as laws banning interracial marriage did forty years ago.)
So if you are considering voting for Prop 8 (which would ban gay marriage), please bear in mind this distinction between the governmental and religious meanings of the word. Those of us opposing Prop 8 are not asking you to sanctify, bless or even approve of same-sex marriages. Instead, we are asking you to allow these couples to live in privacy and peace, with the same legal, financial, health care, and other rights to support each other as heterosexual couples do. Gay marriage harms no one. Why outlaw it?
Proposition 9: Increasing Victims' Role in Criminal Proceedings – NO
This proposition is a personal vendetta. In 1983 a UC Santa Barbara college senior was brutally shot to death. The perpetrator was convicted of second-degree murder and spent the rest of his life in prison. Since then, voters have made it even tougher on this type of criminal. Under Prop 18 of 2000, he would have been convicted of first-degree murder and likely given the death penalty, because he "lay in wait" for his victim.
Even so, relatives of the 1983 victim still feel they were "often treated as though they had no rights," and "experienced the additional pain and frustration of a criminal justice system that too often fails to afford victims even the most basic of rights." (These and other kvetches are written into the measure. See p. 128 of your Proposition Fun Book.) The victim's brother, who has become a high-tech tycoon, has spent $5 million to put Prop 9 on this ballot, to right the perceived slights his family has suffered.
But the state Constitution is no place to settle a personal score. This measure will go far beyond making its sponsor feel better. It will cause real damage to the system.
Prop 9 will flip criminal justice onto its head. It will fundamentally change the purpose of incarceration and other forms of punishment. Instead of making convicts pay their debt to society, under Prop 9 the goal will be to satisfy victims' desire for revenge. Prop 9 writes into the Constitution these new rights for victims:
This is not why we have a Constitution. Think about it. Remember, back in Civics class? The purpose of the Bill of Rights is to protect citizens, especially those who run afoul of the law, from unfair treatment by the government. There are amendments guaranteeing due process, preventing cruel and unusual punishment and prohibiting forced self-incrimination. The Constitution is there to avoid a fascistic police state. It is not there to ensure satisfaction for those wronged by others. The Los Angeles Times's editorial put it well:
Prop 9 will increase the time between parole hearings for life-term convicts from 1-5 years to 3-15 years, for no good reason. It will prevent county jails, which typically house less serious criminals, from relieving overcrowding by releasing some inmates early. And it will attempt to revoke counsel for parolees arrested for parole violations unless they are indigent or incapable of defending themselves; this is in direct violation of a sensible federal court order. None of these provisions will make us appreciably safer, but they will make victims feel better avenged. Sadly, Prop 9 misses the whole point of criminal justice.
In an ironic twist, the sponsor of Prop 9 was recently indicted on criminal charges ranging from backdating of stock options to operating a "personal brothel" to large-scale drug use and distribution, including cocaine, methamphetamine and ecstasy. If he is convicted and Prop 9 passes, you can be sure that his new friends behind bars will remember him when their parole hearings are pushed out by a decade.
Proposition 10: Prius Rebate and Renewable Energy Bonds ($5 billion) – NO
(Please see My Semi-Biennial Lecture on Bonds for my opinion on bonds in general.)
T. Boone! T. Boone! burning bright,
But most cars can't use your stuff.
Prop Ten will sell bonds galore,
If this wins, three billion bucks
Prius buyers each will get
One of Prop Ten's greatest scams
T. Boone! T. Boone! burning bright,
Proposition 11: Redistricting Commission – YES
As this year's gruesome budget stalemate dragged on through the summer, Governor Schwarzenegger summed up his frustration this way:
"Republicans must step out of their ideological corner on the right and Democrats must step out of their ideological corner on the left. We must meet in the middle. We must compromise so that we can move on with vital business..."
Weeks later, as he reluctantly prepared to sign a budget that nobody likes, he remarked,
"We have a problem here with our system...that compromise is being punished, and getting stuck in your ideological corner is being rewarded."
The intense partisanship that the Governor complains about stems directly from non-competitive legislative districts. These districts are so heavily tilted toward one party or the other that they promote the election of strongly partisan representatives. Legislators from such districts tend to avoid working with the other party because it can leave them vulnerable to charges of party disloyalty in their home district primaries. The result is that legislators are predisposed toward obstinacy and against compromise.
Our current districts are fantastically contorted gerrymanders designed to maximize the number of safe Democratic and, consequently, also safe Republican districts. Consider, for example, the psychedelic, fractal-patterned State Senate districts 16 and 18. These districts' interlocking spiral arms gently tease apart the Democratic and Republican neighborhoods of Bakersfield, Visalia, and other San Joaquin Valley cities. Even though the districts cover the same part of the state, District 16 has a 45,000-voter Democratic advantage and District 18 a 60,000-voter Republican advantage. (Each district has roughly 300,000 registered voters.)
The November general election means nothing in such districts. The majority-party candidate is assured of victory. Instead, what's important is the primary contest. And how do you win a partisan primary? By appealing to activist and loyalist elements within your party--by retreating to your "ideological corner," to use Arnold's phrase. So candidates in primaries play up their party credentials, and loudly proclaim they will never compromise core party values like taxes or the environment. Typically, moderates lose these primaries to hardliners. The nominees are then rubber-stamped in November, even if there's significant independent and crossover vote for moderate minority-party nominees, because the district registration is so heavily tilted. The result is a Legislature (and Congress) full of extreme partisans, responsive only to their own parties, with no incentive to compromise or back down from obstructionist tactics.
The solution is to fix the districts, replacing the current, distended, single-party districts with more compact districts that reflect the true political diversity of each area. These will encourage legislators to be responsive to all constituents, since they'll presumably need at least some independent and crossover support to win November general elections.
Under current law, however, the state Legislature draws its own districts every ten years. Considering their political survival is at stake, it would be a miracle if legislators didn't take the opportunity to rig the districts to make their seats safe. So, to end single-party districts—to end the polarization and acrimony—we must take redistricting out of the Legislature's hands. It's as simple as that.
Prop 11 will give a commission of fourteen citizens the task of drawing State Senate, Assembly and Board of Equalization districts. The commission would comprise five Democrats, five Republicans, and four voters of neither party. Any plan would have to be approved by a majority of commissioners from all three groups.
The process to select commissioners seems to have been inspired by reality television. It goes like this: After each 10-year census, any registered voter in the state can submit the equivalent of an audition tape in hopes of being selected as a commissioner. In all likelihood thousands will apply; I certainly intend to. The producer (actually the State Auditor) weeds out any applicants who are political insiders, such as legislative staff, major political contributors or lobbyists, or their immediate families. The survivors are then presented to a panel of mean-spirited judges named Simon, Paula and Randy (actually three independent auditors), who will evaluate the applicants' "analytical skills, ability to be impartial and appreciation for California’s diverse demographics and geography." Don't ask me how they will measure these. Maybe they'll ask for an interpretive dance.
Anyway, Simon, Paula and Randy choose three tribes of survivors: twenty Democrats, twenty Republicans, and twenty who belong to neither major party. Now the four leaders of the State Senate and Assembly arrive and, pretending to be Donald Trump, gleefully fire two survivors apiece from each tribe, leaving twelve in each. At this point the producer returns and presents long-stemmed roses to three Democrats, three Republicans, and two Neithers, chosen randomly from each tribe. These eight become the first Commissioners. They proceed to vote off the island all but two of the survivors in each tribe. Those six join the original eight to form the Mighty Fourteen. Your Redistricting Commission. Five Democrats, five Republicans, four None-of-the-above. All of 'em tough as nails. Let's hear it for them!
The Commission then goes on a statewide Victory Tour, holding public hearings, trashing hotel suites, and developing district maps for State Senate, Assembly, and Board of Equalization. I expect sellouts everywhere.
Districts created under Prop 11 must conform to city and county boundaries as much as possible. This is sensible, not because cities are compact—they're not, as a map of Los Angeles, with its narrow corridor to San Pedro, or San Diego, with its channel through the Bay to the enclave of San Ysidro, will prove—but because they are permanent communities with shared infrastructure, institutions and interests. A further provision prevents districts from bypassing contiguous areas of population in order to incorporate more distant areas. This will prevent the pseudopodia we see in today's districts that reach across mountains and deserts to distant pockets of sympathetic voters.
Note that Prop 11 does not require districts to be competitive. There's nothing in the measure that suggests Democratic and Republican registration should be comparable in any district. After all, to do that would require gerrymanders every bit as misshapen as those we have today. For example, to be competitive, a district starting in San Francisco would have to stretch far and wide to find enough Republicans to balance its Democrats, and a district starting in the state's northeast corner would have to reach hundreds of miles to find Democrats to balance its Republicans. Prop 11 requires compactness, not competitiveness.
Because of this, I don't expect Prop 11 to cause drastic changes to the make-up of the Legislature. The Bay Area will continue to send liberals to Sacramento, and the Inland Empire will send conservatives. Instead, in a few districts in areas that aren't solidly liberal or conservative, Prop 11 will enable moderate candidates to win seats by courting the cross-over and independent voters that aren't enough in today's single-party districts. These moderates can form a swing block in the Legislature, pursued by both sides of the aisle. With a little luck, that would lead to concessions from the polarized wing of each party, and from there to dialog, courtesy, compromise, heightened perspective, and all the other good behaviors that make governing bodies functional. To me, that's the promise of Prop 11.
Proposition 12: Cal-Vet Loan Program – YES
The Cal-Vet loan program provides low-interest home and farm loans to veterans. Cal-Vet gets the money it lends from the sale of bonds. When the veterans pay off their loans, they do so at a rate that allows Cal-Vet to pay for the bonds, the interest on the bonds, and all bureaucratic overhead. In this way, the program has been completely self-supporting since 1921 (the year of Warren Harding's inauguration). Clearly the Cal-Vet program is a winner. The only catch is that the State periodically needs voters' permission to sell more bonds to fuel Cal-Vet. Hence Props 76 (June '88), 142 (Nov. '90), 206 (Nov. '96), 32 (Nov. '00), and the current Prop 12. I heartily recommend a vote in favor of 12 to ensure the continuation of this smashing success.
My Semi-Biennial Lecture on Bonds
When California wants to finance a large project, it asks the voters for permission to take out a loan. Props 1A, 3 and 10 are just such requests. If voters approve, the legislature may take out loans for the projects by selling general obligation bonds, which are paid back with interest over thirty years or so. The bond payments come out of the state's main budget, the General Fund. So when we vote on bond measures, we are really voting on whether the projects in question ought to be added to the state's budget.
"Wait a minute!" I hear you cry. "What about those interest payments? Won't we end up paying more for interest than for the bonds themselves?" This may once have been the case, but with today's low interest rates each dollar of bond money will cost only 30 cents in interest, accounting for inflation. (See details online or on page 8 of your supplemental ballot pamphlet.)
"Okay," you admit, "but loans are still more expensive than pay-as-you-go." This is true. But loans are the only way to buy a house, or a car, or anything else that you need immediately but can't pay for yet. It's worth paying the premium of interest to get the funding now.
"Well and good," you continue, "but there are $16 billion in bonds on this ballot. Isn't that too much to borrow?" For you, yes, but the State of California can handle it. Bond payments today amount to just 4.4% of the General Fund, down from a high of 5.4% in the early 1990s. The bonds on this ballot would raise that figure to 6.1% in 2011. This is higher than it has been in recent decades, perhaps an all-time high, and not something to enter into lightly. But the state has proven it can handle higher debt ratios when called upon to do so.
Props 1A and 3 (but not Prop 10) will fund long-lived, tangible acquisitions, such as railroad tracks and hospital buildings. It's sensible to make extended payments for things that will be used far into the future. (Note, however, that under Prop 3, the tangible acquisitions will be property of private, non-profit corporations instead of the government.) Remember, too, that California's population continues to grow by hundreds of thousands of people every year. Borrowing makes particular sense if you know your income will go up in the future. As the state grows, the General Fund will certainly grow too.
There is one last reason to vote for a bond measure. In addition to being formal requests for permission to take out loans, bond measures are also looked upon as referenda on the merits of the proposed projects. If a bond measure fails, legislators are likely to believe that the public feels the project is not worthy of receiving state funding. By voting no, you may have meant, "Yes on the project but no on the bonds," but your message to Sacramento will read, "No on the project." So if you vote down a bond measure just because you don't like bonds, you may well have killed forever the project the bonds were to have funded.