|Sensible opinions on the California ballot propositions since 1980 by Pete Stahl|
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Pete Rates the Propositions
Proposition 19: Sort-of Legalization of Marijuana – YES
Summary: This is oh-so-similar to the repeal of alcohol prohibition 77 years ago. Prop 19 won't actually make weed legal (it'll still be a federal crime), but it will give momentum to the movement to tolerate and regulate grass as we do alcohol, and reserve our overcrowded prisons for pushers of truly life-ruining drugs like cocaine, heroin and meth.
Details: Despite the fact that it's illegal, nearly 3 million adult Californians use marijuana. That's 11% of the population age 18 and over. If you have 100 friends on Facebook, statistically 11 of them smoke pot. If you're at a rock concert with 50,000 fans, you can expect 5,500 stoners in the crowd. Well, okay, maybe more if certain bands are playing.
All of these people break state and federal laws whenever they acquire their illicit doobies. Yet marijuana is less intoxicating than alcohol, and far less addictive than tobacco (10% vs. 33%), and both of those other substances are legal. Marijuana is a huge business in our state, with $14 billion in annual sales. Even with eradication efforts by the Drug Enforcement Agency and over 75,000 marijuana arrests last year, this underground market is booming.
We are at a crossroads with this drug. We can continue to pretend it can be suppressed, leaving this gigantic industry in the hands of criminals and gangs. Or we can legalize it, regulate it, tax it, bring it into the open, and remove the stigma and hypocrisy. This is exactly what our grandparents' generation did in 1933 when alcohol prohibition ended, and that has turned out just fine.
On October 1st, Gov. Schwarzenegger signed a new law reclassifying possession of up to one ounce of marijuana from a misdemeanor to an infraction (similar to a traffic ticket). The penalty will still be a fine of up to $100, but violators will not be arrested or acquire criminal records, and no jury trial will take place. The new law will go into effect on the first day of 2011.
Prop 19 will go even further, removing all state laws against possession and use of up to one ounce of marijuana. (A typical tobacco cigarette contains roughly one-thirtieth of an ounce of tobacco, so if your joints are the same size, you'd be allowed to carry 30 of them.) Prop 19 will also make it legal under state law to cultivate up to 25 square feet of cannabis plants for personal use.
That all sounds great. But marijuana will still be illegal because of the federal Controlled Substances Act. Under that 1970 law, possession of any amount of grass can get you up to one year in the slammer and a $1,000 fine. The Obama administration has said it will take a hands-off approach to medical marijuana, presumably on humanitarian grounds. But the "compassion" argument won't fly for recreational weed. If Prop 19 passes, you can bet the federal Drug Enforcement Agency will be conducting raids and making arrests. For the near term at least, Prop 19 won't really make pot legal.
So why bother passing Prop 19? Because it will lend credibility and momentum to the growing movement to legalize marijuana nationally. It will take years, maybe decades, but it's a laudable goal and deserves your vote. It simply makes no sense for our government to ban a substance that's more benign than tobacco and alcohol, to waste so much money trying to stamp out a practice that's so pervasive, to clog our courts and prisons with what amounts to nuisance cases, and to hand over such a large part of the economy to criminals. Let's be honest about marijuana, and focus our time and effort instead on eradicating real problem drugs.
Proposition 20: Commission to Draw Congressional Districts – YES
Summary: Prop 20 will transfer the job of drawing Congressional districts from the state Legislature to the independent Citizens Redistricting Commission created by Prop 11 in 2008. This will eliminate tortured gerrymanders like those we have today, resulting in fewer "automatic" districts for both parties. This will probably reduce Democrats' current 34-19 advantage, so if all you care about is maximizing the number of Democrats we send to Washington, vote "no". However, if you care about fairness and accountability, this is your prop.
Details: Two years ago we approved Prop 11, creating the independent Citizens Redistricting Commission. Commission members are currently being selected from a pool of 120 finalists, and will soon begin to draw district maps for state Senate, Assembly, and Board of Equalization. Prop 20 asks: If the Commission is good enough to draw state districts, why not also for the U. S. House of Representatives?
After all, the same principles should apply. Districts drawn by the Legislature cause big problems. (See my Prop 11 rating for details.) These problems affect Washington as well as Sacramento, so why not just broaden the Commission's charter to cover one more map?
Okay, here's one argument against Prop 20. California's congressional delegation competes with the other 49 states for big federal dollars, so it's actually to our advantage to draw districts that perpetually reelect their Representatives. That will give our delegation maximum seniority, which equals power in Washington. If we were to pass Prop 20 and cripple our delegation with competitive districts, we'd only be hurting ourselves. The other states would laugh at us: "Ha, ha, ha," say Connecticut and Virginia, taking home valuable naval bases we could have had.
Well, it is true that seniority is a key to power in the U. S. Senate. However, in 1975 the House enacted reforms, significantly reducing the weight of seniority. So, for example, Rep. Eric Cantor has been in office less than ten years, ranking him only 205th on the House seniority ladder, yet he's the Republican Whip. Similarly, Silvestre Reyes ranks just 164th in seniority, yet he's chairman of the important House Intelligence Committee. Meanwhile, Bill Young (5th most senior), Don Young (7), Norman Dicks (12) and Dale Kildee (13), who have all been hanging around Capitol Hill since the 1970s, have no leadership roles. So the argument that we have to facilitate reelection to compete with other states is no longer valid.
A more powerful argument against Prop 20, at least to Democrats, may be that it will reduce Democrats' current 34-19 advantage in our congressional delegation. One look at Lois Capps's 200-mile-long snake of a Democratic gerrymander along the Central Coast should be all it takes to convince you of that. The Redistricting Commission would likely be required to refactor her district with two neighboring Republican districts, producing three Republican-leaning districts where today there are solid districts for each party. If that prospect troubles you, and your top priority is maximizing the number of Democrats we send to Washington, then you should probably stop here and vote "no" on Prop 20. Likewise, I suppose devoted Republicans should auto-vote "yes".
But these partisan responses ignore deep accountability problems with single-party gerrymanders. Because victory in such districts is assured for the majority party's nominee, the only meaningful contest is the primary. (This will still be true under nonpartisan primaries enacted by Prop 14 [assuming it survives a court challenge], except in the rare cases where the majority party captures both "top-two" nominations.) So the representatives in single-party districts are accountable only to those who nominate them. Because of shrinking party registration and low primary turnout, nominations are too often controlled by a tiny rump of stalwarts and activists. That's who your representative really answers to. Is it any wonder that Congress increasingly consists of inflexible, party-first loyalists?
Prop 20 will place many representatives into districts where they'll have to appeal to more than their party rumps to be reelected. They'll have to pay attention to the needs and opinions of their whole districts, not just their party's central committee. In a word, they'll have to be more representative. That's the kind of elected officials we should have in the first place.
Proposition 21: Vehicle License Fee for Parks and Wildlife – NO
Summary: I would not object to Prop 21's $18 surcharge on vehicle registrations if it went into the state's General Fund, to be spent where it's needed most. But Prop 21 permanently earmarks the half-billion dollars from this surcharge for state parks and wildlife conservation. This is budgeting by ballot box, and it is a major contributor to our dreadful annual budget problems.
Details: The combined annual budget for state parks and wildlife conservation usually runs about $400 million. Half of this comes from user fees and special-purpose taxes, such as the gas tax. That half is fairly stable. The other half comes from the General Fund, however, and has been under siege in recent budget cycles as the Governor and Legislature try to solve huge deficits. In the past two years, the Governor has proposed deep cuts to the General Fund half of state park funding, including a plan (never enacted) that would have closed 220 of the 279 state parks. In 2009, a minor budget cut of $14 million actually occurred, causing some campgrounds and facilities to be shut down on weekdays, and reducing maintenance and cleaning.
Prop 21 seeks to stabilize funding for state parks and wildlife conservation by imposing an $18 surcharge on vehicle registrations, to be permanently dedicated to parks and wildlife. Surcharge income would replace the current $200 million from the General Fund. Supporters might call this a win-win-win, with parks receiving stable funding, the General Fund receiving $200 million back, and vehicle owners receiving free day-use entry to all state parks in exchange for the surcharge.
But hang on just a minute there, pardner. That $18 surcharge will raise far more than the $200 million that parks and wildlife currently get from the General Fund. In fact, the Legislative Analyst estimates the surcharge will bring in $500 million. Even allowing for revenue lost to all those free day-users, if Prop 21 passes, total parks and wildlife funding will jump from $400 million to $650 million -- that's a 62% raise.
In the current economic atmosphere, it obviously doesn't make sense to give parks and wildlife a quarter-billion-dollar increase while nearly every other government program is suffering. Remember that state agencies like the DMV continue to furlough employees every other Friday, and funding for local governments, schools, colleges, health care, and so on is still in jeopardy.
But even from a long-term perspective, Prop 21 is bad policy. That's because it walls off yet another income stream with a permanent earmark, destroying the Legislature's ability to direct funding each year where it's needed most. Prop 10 of 1998 dedicated a tobacco tax to early childhood development. Prop 63 of 2004 dedicated an income tax to mental health services. Prop 1A of 2006 dedicated sales taxes on motor fuel to transportation projects. Now Prop 21 will dedicate a vehicle license fee surcharge to parks and wildlife.
Even if you think these are the right spending priorities this year, are you sure they'll be right ten, twenty, or fifty years from now? You'd better be sure, because the only way around an earmark like Prop 21 is with another ballot proposition. Prop 21 is budgeting by ballot box, and it damages our state by imposing rigid, permanent spending priorities in a world that doesn't stand still.
Proposition 22: State to Keep Its Paws Off Local Budgets – NO
Summary: This amounts to a tug-of-war for tax dollars, with Prop 22 benefitting California’s cities, transportation commissions and redevelopment agencies, but hurting counties, school districts, and the state. Even if you side with cities and transit, though, you can't love the way Prop 22 locks in a Constitutional protection for $13 billion every year for redevelopment agencies. Budgeting by ballot box once again, I'm afraid.
Details: Turlock (ESPN): Next month's highly anticipated grudge match between the Sacramento General Fund and the Municipal Infrastructure Builders is the latest chapter in a long-running feud. The current battle got off to a rollicking start in 2009-10, when the General Fund intercepted $2 billion in property tax revenue intended for local redevelopment agencies, and lateraled it to local schools, who ran it in for a score. "Schools needed that money more than developers," said Sacramento cornerback Mark Leno. "We see kids sitting rooms with leaks dripping on their desks so Costcos can get built in their districts with public dollars."
Sacramento increased its lead in the second quarter, pinning the Municipals deep in their end and forcing local governments to cough up $1.9 billion in property taxes. "It was a clean hit, totally legit," protested the General Fund's coach, Arnold S. "Voters authorized it with Prop 1A in 2004. We'll repay it with interest next season, just like da rulebook says."
The last straw for the Infrastructure Builders came when Sacramento forced them to fumble $1 billion in fuel tax revenues. Sacramento was only able to hold on to the money for a short-term loan, but the Infrastructure Builders angrily maintain that by then the damage had been done.
Feeling they've been kicked around for too long, the Municipals are now touting a new weapon for the upcoming contest: Prop 22. This new rule would outlaw many of the tactics Sacramento has been using recently. For example, under Prop 22, it would be considered an Illegal Shift for the General Fund to move redevelopment agency money to schools. Also, requiring local governments to lend their property tax revenue to Sacramento would now be Holding, and using fuel taxes for short-term cash flow would be Encroachment.
The Competition Committee has been looking into Prop 22, however, and may vote it down. This reporter, for one, thinks its defeat would be good for the sport, because passage of Prop 22 would tilt the playing field too much in favor of the Municipal Infrastructure Builders. In particular, Prop 22 would lock in a constitutional guarantee for redevelopment agencies' enormous property tax revenue, currently in excess of $13 billion per year. That's 12% of all property taxes collected in the state: quite a catch.
But imagine committing 12% of your team's income to sign a Croatian placekicker, then suddenly realizing you don't have room under the salary cap for decent blockers. It may be nice to have a reliable kicker, but your team will never win without those blockers. Similarly, redevelopment programs are nice to have, but they are no more worthy of being shielded from budget cuts than health care, schools, law enforcement, or anything else our tax dollars fund. This provision is out of bounds.
Prop 22 would also make the General Fund pick up the tab for $8.5 billion in transportation bonds from Props 192 (1996) and 1B (2006). Today these bonds are paid by the excise tax on gasoline, which is clearly a fair catch. Forcing the General Fund to retire these bonds will effectively earmark an additional $1 billion a year for transit projects, reducing what's available for all other government programs. That's Pass Interference.
Prop 22 amounts to a bonanza for redevelopment agencies (read: developers) and transit agencies (read: construction industry), at the expense of everything else our government funds. Especially in these hard times, this measure is Unsportsmanlike Conduct. I urge all members of the Competition Committee to vote against it.
Proposition 23: Suspension of Greenhouse Gas Law – NO
Summary: Prop 23 would effectively repeal AB 32, California's landmark law to limit greenhouse gas emissions. The campaign is funded by oil refiners, who see a double-threat in AB 32: It requires them to take costly action to reduce how much they pollute, and it boosts competition from clean-energy businesses, as AB 32 has catalyzed billions of dollars in private-sector green investment to date.
Details: Vote "no" on Prop 23 to save AB 32, California's historic law to reduce air pollution and improve energy efficiency. Signed four years ago by Gov. Schwarzenegger, AB 32 requires the state to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases to 1990 levels by the year 2020. Consequently about 30% less carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases will be spewed into our air under AB 32 than would be without it.
Human-generated greenhouse gases pose a clear and present danger to our planet. The global warming trend that started in the Industrial Revolution has been accelerating, with the most rapid warming occurring over the past two decades. The ten warmest years of the last century all occurred since 1995. The Sierra snowpack has supplied steadily less and less water for drinking, hydroelectric power and farm irrigation. We can expect more intense cycles of drought and flood, a rising sea level, and routine record high temperatures like the 113° Los Angeles hit on September 27 this year. Smog will increase, and fire seasons will be worse.
California is the second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the United States, and one of the largest emitters in the world.
AB 32 will slow down our contribution to the worldwide crisis. The Air Resources Board of the California EPA, which administers AB 32, is taking a multi-pronged approach, including direct regulations, alternative compliance mechanisms, monetary and non-monetary incentives, voluntary actions, a cap-and-trade system, and fees on polluters to fund the program. Large industrial sources of greenhouse gases are required to report and verify their emissions; these will be audited to identify the biggest bang-for-buck emissions-reducing opportunities. Motor vehicle emissions standards are being tightened, and land-use planning changes will lead to cities where we won't have to drive everywhere. Electricity generation will come from 33% renewable sources by 2020, and home appliance efficiency will continue to improve.
Passage of AB 32 in 2006 was something of a political miracle. Now Valero, Occidental, Tesoro, and other oil refiners want to undo it with Prop 23. These refiners will have to spend a ton of money to reduce their refineries' emissions to conform to AB 32's tight regulations (or to buy cap-and-trade credits). So they're only being canny businesspeople when they gamble a few million dollars on Prop 23 for a chance to avoid spending many times that amount implementing it. That's their right under our glaringly flawed initiative system, and it's also their obligation to their shareholders.
And there's a more existential threat to oil refiners. Since AB 32 passed, it has spurred billions of dollars in investments in new, nonpolluting technologies, incidentally creating hundreds of thousands of green jobs. These new technologies threaten oil refiners by reducing the amount of petroleum we'll need to consume. You may have noticed that giant energy corporations with diversified portfolios are sitting on the Prop 23 sidelines. For example, Chevron and BP are heavily invested in solar, geothermal, biofuels and hydrogen in addition to oil. Their businesses will adapt very nicely to AB 32, so they're taking no public position on Prop 23. It's only the fossil fuel pure plays that need Prop 23.
Technically, Prop 23 will just delay implementation of AB 32 until California's unemployment rate dips below 5.5% for four consecutive quarters. But the unemployment rate is now 12.8%, and it will be a looooooooong time before we see 5.5% again. So, in effect, Prop 23 will repeal AB 32.
AB 32 is already slowing down California's emissions, and it serves as a beacon of inspiration for the rest of the country and the world. California has long been the leader in environmental responsibility. It would be an enormous blow if we caved in to some refiners' fears and passed Prop 23. Even big-name Republicans have joined nearly every Democrat to oppose Prop 23. You should too.
Proposition 24: Repeal of Big-Business Tax Breaks – YES
Summary: Repeals $1.3 billion in tax cuts benefitting large, multi-state corporations at the expense of the rest of us. The loopholes, added to the 2008-09 budget deal behind closed doors, were supposed to offset a one-year acceleration in business tax payments. But while the acceleration was for one year only, the tax breaks are permanent. They are clearly an unjustified giveaway and should be rolled back.
Details: What details do you need? Back-room deal, no benefit to the state, well-heeled interests, large contributions to politicians, special treatment. Lather, rinse, repeal.
All right, all right, you want details. Here: Prop 24 rolls back three corporate tax breaks that were adopted with virtually no hearings or debate as part of the hastily-approved, months-late budget in September, 2008. You remember September, 2008: it was the month that Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were nationalized, AIG melted down, and Merrill Lynch, Wachovia and Washington Mutual all disappeared.
California was facing a $15 billion budget deficit. Part of the solution proposed by the Department of Finance was an accounting gimmick known as "revenue accelerators", the speeding up of tax and withholding collections from individuals and corporations. These accelerators—little more than smoke and mirrors—somehow bridged several billion dollars of the budget gap. But corporate interests (read "Republicans") opposed them because they would mess with cash flows. In order to placate them, three tax breaks were cooked up, to take effect way off in 2011. "By then this whole recession thing will have blown over," I'm sure all the legislators in Sacramento were thinking. "Or at least I'll be termed out and it will be someone else's problem!"
The first tax break allows business net operating losses to be carried back two years (instead of none) or forward twenty years (instead of ten). The second allows multistate corporations to choose the more favorable of two formulas to determine their taxable income. The third allows tax credits to be shared with affiliated business entities in order to reduce their tax liability. Taken together, these tax breaks will reduce corporate taxes by some $1.3 billion annually. Seems like fine compensation for agreeing to those revenue accelerators two years ago.
Here's the problem: Those revenue accelerators were one-time-only, but the tax breaks are forever. What justification is there for continuing these tax breaks beyond 2011? None whatsoever. Quoth state Treasurer Bill Lockyer back in 2008: "This giveaway makes the budget a massive corporate boondoggle that does nothing to fix our structural deficit and, in fact, will make it substantially worse."
The tax breaks repealed by Prop 24 would benefit only the top 2% of California businesses; the other 98%, including virtually all small businesses, won't even notice if Prop 24 passes.
Supporters of the tax breaks have claimed they will stimulate economic activity, create in-state jobs, spur industrial growth, cure hair loss, and bring the Stanley Cup to San Jose. There's not a shred of credible evidence that any of these will happen. Instead, the corporations will take their tax breaks to the bank, posting ever-higher profits at the public's expense.
Over the past three decades, California's tax burden has shifted dramatically from corporations to individuals. The Department of Finance estimates that while corporate tax receipts have shrunk from 15% to 11% of General Fund revenues since 1980, personal tax receipts have grown from 35% to 53%. Failure of Prop 24 would make this disparity even worse. Think of voting for Prop 24 as your way of putting the tax burden ever-so-slightly back into balance.
Proposition 25: Simple Majority to Pass State Budget – YES
Summary: California is one of just three states to require a supermajority to adopt an annual budget, and it has caused us no end of headaches. The budget has failed to pass on time in 25 of the past 30 years. Worse, when stalemates occur, the entire budget process moves behind closed doors, to be resolved by just five people. Most legislators don't get to see it until they have to vote on it, and many details don't come out until after it has become law. Prop 25 will eliminate the requirement for two-thirds vote to pass the state budget. This will end the intractable stalemates and bathe the budget process in open sunshine. Majority rule seems to work well enough in 47 other states, so why not give it a try here?
There are two ways to look at Prop 25: political and practical. The political angle is that this measure will give Democrats complete control over the legislative budget process, so all good Democrats should vote for it.
Democrats have held a continuous majority in both houses of the Legislature for the last 40 years, except for the Assembly in 1995-6. They've never had a two-thirds majority, though, so Democrats have always needed some Republican crossover votes to pass budgets. Crossover votes are very difficult to obtain. This is partially because so many legislators (of both parties) are hard-line partisans unwilling to make the necessary compromises, and partially because the state Republican Party has demonstrated it will retaliate against anyone who breaks ranks. (See Maldonado, Sen. Abel, 2009.) Prop 25 would allow Democrats, assuming they retain their majorities, to pass budgets without a single Republican vote. This should smooth the process and allow budgets to pass on time, without the rancor and obstructionism we've grown used to seeing.
If you're a loyal Democrat, you may be tempted to stop reading here, vote "yes," and shout "Hallelujah!" But a word of warning: Your party has achieved its long-lived majorities through gerrymanders and partisan primaries, both of which will soon disappear due to passage of Props 11 and 14 (assuming they survive various lawsuits and repeal attempts). So there's no guarantee Democrats will stay in control. If you're comfortable with that risk, then stop now and do your little victory dance. If not, read on.
The practical argument for Prop 25 is that it will provide relief from a budget process that's so broken that it hurts everyone in the state, regardless of party. We've become too familiar with tedious stalemates, stretching into months, that accompany each year's budget process. In theory the budget is due every June 15 for the fiscal year that starts July 1. In practice, the budget was not signed until August 24 in 2007, September 23 in 2008, July 28 in 2009, and still not yet as of October 1, 2010.
These delays force the state to send out IOUs to creditors, costing the state millions of dollars in interest and lowering its bond rating. Budget delays wreak havoc at all levels of government, as state and local agencies must operate without knowing their funding levels. School districts have had to start the current school year without knowing how much money they have, using estimates and assumptions; any districts that guess wrong may have to make painful and disruptive mid-year corrections. Prop 25 will ease legislative passage, making these delays far rarer and shorter.
When budgets are late, negotiations are handed over to the "Big Five"—the Governor and the majority and minority leaders of the Assembly and Senate. In all probability, your legislators are not involved. Negotiations are held in secret. If any outsiders are consulted, they're usually special-interest lobbyists, who demand (and too often receive) ridiculous gifts such as the big-business tax breaks that I hope are repealed by Prop 24. These concessions would never survive the normal legislative process, but anything can happen when few are involved and the public isn't looking. (Hint: This may be why everyone hates Sacramento.)
When the Big Five finally strike a deal, it's treated as an emergency act that must be approved immediately by the full Legislature. Rank and file members have virtually no time to read the lengthy and complex $100 billion budget package, much less analyze it or request changes. The budget, the single most important piece of legislation of the year, has been written behind closed doors and must be rubber-stamped. Some democracy this is.
Prop 25 will facilitate on-time budgets, so the Big Five will no longer own them. Instead, the budget will go through the normal legislative process, with open hearings, public votes, and the involvement of the entire Legislature. To me, this sunshine is even more critical than eliminating the delays. Under Prop 25, not only will we have budgets when we need them; we'll also have transparency and full participation that will restore confidence in the system itself. Imagine not being so angry at the Legislature any more!
Proposition 26: Two-Thirds Vote to Impose Fees – NO
Summary: Should oil companies pay a fee to support oil recycling education, incentives and facilities? Should liquor stores pay a fee to support the increased law enforcement and merchant education they necessitate? Of course they should. But Prop 26 would reclassify these perfectly reasonable business fees as taxes, thereby requiring a difficult-to-obtain two-thirds majority of the Legislature to enact or increase. This prop is nothing but a self-benefiting buy-a-law for Chevron, Anheuser-Busch, and their friends.
Proposition 27: Kill the Redistricting Commission – NO
Summary: Prop 27 eliminates the Citizens Redistricting Commission that draws state legislative district boundaries. The Commission was established by Prop 11 in 2008. I heartily endorsed Prop 11, so I heartily oppose Prop 27. Read that rating to see why.
Details: Repealing Prop 11 would give the redistricting process back to Legislature, reinstating one of the biggest conflicts of interest in politics (and that's saying something!). The legislators would inevitably create distorted, one-party gerrymanders to assure their own reelection. And how do you win in a single-party district? By being as partisan as possible. The legislature would be as polarized, obstinate and dysfunctional as ever. Do we really want more of that?
Proponents of Prop 27 can't even find a plausible argument for killing the Redistricting Commission, falling back instead on the canard of saving money. Yes, shutting down the Commission would save about $3 million. But that's less than what Meg Whitman's campaign spends in a week. Amortized over the ten-year redistricting period, it's just $300,000 per year, or less than one cent per Californian. Not exactly a budget buster for a state with a General Fund of $100 billion.