Pete Rates the Propositions
Sensible opinions on the California ballot propositions      since 1980      by Pete Stahl

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Pete Rates the Propositions
June 2012

Pete recommends:
28   YES   Legislative Term Limit Tweak
29   YES   Tobacco Tax to Fund Cancer Research
        Voting in "Top Two" Primary Elections

Proposition 28: Legislative Term Limit Tweak – YES

Summary: State legislators are currently limited to 14 years: six in the Assembly plus eight in the Senate. Consequently the Assembly is filled with inexperienced newbies so unfamiliar with statewide issues that they're dangerously susceptible to the influence of special-interest lobbyists—exactly what term limits were supposed to prevent. Prop 28 will reduce the 14-year total limit to 12, but allow legislators to serve all 12 in the same chamber. This will increase continuity, and give our representatives the experience they need to think for themselves and their districts instead of taking legislative dictation from lobbyists.

Details: (Note: Prop 28 is a rerun of the failed Prop 93 from 2008, so I’m rerunning that rating with updated names and numbers.)

"Throw the rascals out!" That was the rallying cry for Prop 140, the 1990 term limits initiative. Aimed at entrenched career politicians and the special interests supposedly keeping them in office, Prop 140 passed in a landslide of indignation. State legislators are now limited to eight years in the Assembly and six in the Senate.

Yes, Einstein, that adds up to fourteen years, but not many serve that long. The Senate is only half the size of the Assembly, and Senate vacancies are less frequent, so most Assembly members are squeezed out of Sacramento after just six years, never reaching the Senate.

In the first dozen years after Prop 140 passed there was a fair amount of chamber switching in both directions, as termed-out Assembly members and Senators grabbed each others' seats. So in the early days of term limits, a fair portion of the Assembly had prior experience in the State Senate. But no longer. Today, only four members of the Assembly have ever served in the Senate. The other seventy-six have been in Sacramento five years or less. In other words, the Assembly is filled with inexperience.

Most telling, the Assembly leadership is essentially a bunch of unseasoned sophomores. Speaker John Pérez ascended to his position after just fifteen months in the Legislature, and Minority Leader Connie Conway assumed her post with only two years of Sacramento experience.

I don’t know about you, but is scares me to put a state with 37 million people and a twelve-figure budget in the hands of policy-makers with so little experience. Imagine how long it would take you to understand the nuances of budgeting, taxation, water, energy, environment, prisons, health care, education, transportation, agriculture, criminal and civil law, and so forth. Can you do it in two years? Guess what: that’s not good enough. You can’t just understand these subjects; you have to master them and lead state policy. After all, in two years you may have a leadership role.

How do they do it? How do our green Assembly members figure out how to make policy and laws with such inadequate training? They can’t always rely on staff—Prop 140 slashed legislative staff levels to the bone. So they rely on those with true experience: lobbyists and think tanks. And they might also listen a teensy weensy bit to campaign contributors. Friends, this is government by special interest, and it’s the exact opposite of what voters wanted when they passed Prop 140.

Because the situation in the Assembly is so dangerous, we must adjust term limits. Prop 28 will tighten the total limit from 14 years to 12, and allow all 12 years to be served in the same house. The 12-year limit means there still will be no career state legislators. But allowing it all in one chamber means the Assembly Speaker will probably have eight or ten years' experience instead of two, making it far less likely that leadership will be encountering important issues for the first time.

Prop 28 will give legislators time to learn the ropes so they can decide based on the issues, not what lobbyists tell them. Prop 28 will bring more continuity, more long-term vision, and more coherent policy to our government.

Proposition 29: Tobacco Tax to Fund Cancer Research – YES

Summary: Prop 29 will impose a new, dollar-a-pack tax on tobacco products, and dedicate the money—about $800 million a year—to research of tobacco-related diseases and smoking prevention. This is budgeting by ballot box, which I hate. Nevertheless, increasing the cigarette tax will reduce smoking, prevent many teens from becoming addicted, and temper the rise in statewide healthcare costs. So I'm reluctantly supporting Prop 29.

Details: I have flip-flopped on this measure, and my support is just lukewarm. My regular readers will see why I'm so torn: Prop 29 pits two of my rules against each other.

The first rule is, "Never vote for a measure that permanently commits state money to a program. It distorts budget priorities and straitjackets the state, preventing it from shifting money to address urgent needs as they arise. Budgeting by ballot box gives me hives."

Prop 29 will raise the cigarette tax by $1.00 a pack, generating over $800 million a year for the state. That should put a serious dent in the state’s multi-billion dollar deficit, and take some of the sting out of deep cuts we're facing to education, public safety, state parks, and other essential programs.

As I say, Prop 29 should put a dent in the deficit. But it won't.

That’s because nearly all of the new revenue will be permanently steered into a new state program of medical research and smoking prevention. What Prop 29 bringeth into state coffers with one hand it spendeth with the other.

Prop 29’s insistence on starting an expensive new program while desperately urgent state priorities starve for funding is remarkably tone-deaf. And expensive Prop 29 will be: it will cost more than the bond payments for the much reviled High Speed Rail system.

Listen to Governor Brown’s May 14th budget message. Multi-billion dollar income tax shortfalls have forced him to propose brutal cuts to essential programs and services. In this crisis, it's lunacy to pass a tax increase not directed at solving our gaping deficit.

Can we do without the research Prop 29 would fund? In a word, yes. In more words, federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute already have a combined medical research budget exceeding $38 billion. Prop 29 would add only one or two percent to this existing effort. It simply can't make that much of a difference.

Even if Prop 29 could make a real difference, California should not be paying for this research. Medical breakthroughs resulting from Prop 29 will be used by doctors and patients across the country and around the world, not just here, so it's rightly a federal responsibility, not the state's.

You might think that it's still worthwhile for the state to fund the research because of the in-state jobs in construction and science that will result. You'd be wrong. Amazingly, Prop 29 projects aren't required to be located in California.

(This is very different from Prop 71, the 2004 embryonic stem cell research bond. Back then, the Bush administration was barring all federal funding for this important research, so state funding was the only option. Also, Prop 71 was a one-time bond, not a perpetual commitment. And all Prop 71 money is staying in California.)

It's even possible that Prop 29 could have no net effect on overall medical research funding. When Congressmen from other states see California’s willingness to tax ourselves for this cause, they may see an opportunity to cut federal research funding by an equal amount. Then they could claim a multi-billion-dollar win against the evil federal deficit without actually reducing total research dollars, all at our expense. What kind of heroes will we be then?

Now that I've got you good and angry about Prop 29, it's time for my second rule: "Never vote down a measure because of what it won't do. Instead, look at what it will do, and decide whether that's a change for the better."

What have I described above? What Prop 29 won't do. It won't help solve the state budget crisis. It won't contribute appreciably to nationwide medical research. And it won't particularly help our state. But as maddening as those failures are, they are not sufficient reasons to vote against Prop 29.

So let's look at what Prop 29 will do. Raising the price of cigarettes will reduce smoking and addiction, especially among teenagers, who are the most at risk both socially and biologically. Less smoking means fewer of us will be exposed to harmful second-hand smoke. I would love to tax cigarettes into oblivion, and Prop 29 will be a step in that direction.

The state budget will reap benefits from the reduced rate of smoking. Fewer smoking-related illnesses will decrease the projected burden on Medicaid/MediCal by as much as $2.9 billion annually. Fewer work days will be lost to tobacco-related conditions, increasing productivity. Health insurance for state employees will become cheaper than it would otherwise be.

The tobacco tax increase in Prop 29 will have positive impact on California regardless of what we do with the money, even if we plow it into a hillside or launch it into space. Indeed, in 2006 I supported Prop 86, another cigarette tax, using exactly that rationale.

Do I care what they do with all that dough? Naah. Pave Death Valley. Build a football stadium in L.A. Buy new cars for all the sixth-grade teachers in the state. Whatever.

(Incidentally, Prop 86 failed in the face of a withering, $66 million onslaught from tobacco companies.)

So now comes the moment of truth. We must resolve the conflict between my two rules. By the first rule, Prop 29 is hideous because it permanently earmarks all of the money it collects for special programs we don't need, and prohibits the state from using those billions for things we do need. Yet by the second rule, Prop 29 is wonderful because it will reduce the amount that people smoke, prevent many young people from ever starting, and improve health throughout the state.

To decide, let's consider whether voting down Prop 29 might actually address any of our complaints. If Prop 29 fails, could the Legislature raise cigarette taxes to help bridge the budget gap? Here's a hint: over the past 19 years, in budget crisis after budget crisis, the Legislature has not once raised the cigarette tax. And since 1959 they have raised it just two cents a pack. All other increases have come via voter initiatives. It seems our legislators are so cowed by the tobacco lobby that they are politically incapable of raising this tax themselves. Prop 29 is our only way to increase the tobacco tax. Any visions we may have of the Legislature hiking the tobacco tax to help close the budget gap are just pipedreams. It could never happen.

Because there is essentially no hope of directing an increased tobacco tax into the General Fund, the arguments against Prop 29 crumble. Sure, it's budgeting by ballot box. But this measure is the only way we have to increase the cigarette tax. There is no other choice.

It has now been 14 years since California’s 87 cents per-pack tobacco tax was last touched. Because it's a per-pack excise tax, not a per-dollar sales tax, we must periodically adjust it for inflation or else it will dwindle into uselessness. Our 87-cent tax is now far lower than it is in supposedly tax-averse states like Texas ($1.41), New Hampshire ($1.68), and Arizona ($2.00). Among our blue-state peers we fare even worse: Massachusetts ($2.51) collects three times as much per pack as we do, Hawaii ($3.20) four times, and New York ($4.35) a whopping five times. It's high time we followed suit, if only for the public health benefit. California is not a tobacco state.

Voting in "Top Two" Primary Elections

As my regular readers know, I do not rate candidates. However, I do have a few words of advice on how to approach our new, "top two" primary elections.

"Top two" was approved when we passed Prop 14 in 2010, and this election will be our first experience with it. Under the new system, everyone's primary ballots contain all candidates for state and federal office, regardless of party. (The race for President is excepted.) If you're a Democrat, your ballot will contain not just Democrats, but also Republicans, Libertarians, "no party preference," and so on. You may vote for any of them.

The top two finishers in the June primary advance to the November general election, again regardless of party. In some contests, two Democrats or two Republicans could advance, freezing out all of the other parties. It will be interesting to watch.

The pile-up of candidates on your ballot can be very confusing. For example, there are 24 people vying for the U. S. Senate seat currently held by Dianne Feinstein. Candidates are listed in random order, so if you want to vote for DiFi (or anyone else for that matter), you may have to wade through twenty-odd entries before you find her. Be patient and be careful; the potential for error is high. We don't want to become a laughingstock electorate like Florida was in 2000.

With that many people running, you can probably find an obscure candidate to fall in love with, one who shares your views on virtually every issue. It will be quite tempting to vote for that candidate, even if he or she is not among the poll-anointed "front-runners."

That was the right way to vote in old-style partisan primary elections, because even if your heartthrob lost, you knew your party would have somebody more or less acceptable on the November ballot. But that's no longer the case. Your party is not guaranteed a slot in the general election. Only the top two vote-getters will advance. And they will be chosen by voters who vote for the major contenders.

Surely one of those half-dozen front-runners must be acceptable. Not perfect, maybe, but better than the major candidates you really can't stand. You can help that acceptable front-runner win a spot in the November run-off, or you can vote your heart's true desire let the rest of us nominate someone you may despise. Your choice.

It pains me to say that. You should be able to support your favorite candidate without risk. It can be unpleasant to vote for a front-runner tainted by unsavory special interests, political naïveté, excessive dogmatism, or vicious attack ads. But you've got to play the hand you're dealt. You have just one vote. Use it as effectively as you can.

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