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 1998

Pete recommends:
219   YES   Uniform Application of Ballot Propositions
220   YES   Consolidation of Municipal and Superior Courts
221   YES   Discipline of Court Commissioners and Referees
222   NO   Elimination of Work and Education Credits for Second Degree Murderers
223   NO   Capping School District Administration Budgets ("95/5")
224   NO   Use of State Agencies in Design and Engineering Projects
225   NO   Congressional Term Limit Pantomime
226   NO   Reducing Political Contributions by Unions
227   NO   Elimination of Bilingual Education

Proposition 219: Uniform Application of Ballot Propositions - YES

Five years ago, putrid Prop 172 went before California voters. This malodorous measure imposed a tax increase statewide, but distributed the proceeds only to those counties where a majority had voted for it. So if your county's voters said "no" to 172, you'd get higher taxes but no benefits. At the time I wrote, "I wish I had been able to include a clothespin with this edition, folks, because you're going to want to hold your nose when you vote for Prop 172."

This was foul extortion, of course. People voted for the higher tax (it passed) out of fear of being excluded rather than considering the tax on its own merits. Prop 219 will outlaw such stinky tactics by requiring propositions to apply uniformly across the area voting on them. 219 will be a breath of fresh air.

Another subterfuge gaining currency across the state is writing a proposition so it behaves differently depending on how many votes it gets. A prop might enact a special-purpose tax if it gets two-thirds approval, but a general tax instead if it gets only a simple majority. I frown upon such amorphous propositions because voters cannot divine what their votes mean without a crystal ball. Prop 219 will outlaw this tactic too.

Proposition 220: Consolidation of Municipal and Superior Courts - YES

County courts are divided into two tiers. The upper tier, superior court, hears all felony, juvenile, family and probate cases, as well as civil cases over $25,000. The lower tier, municipal court, holds preliminary hearings and hears misdemeanor, traffic, and smaller civil cases. (A third tier, justice courts, was eliminated by Prop 191 in 1994.)

You might think that only superior court judges preside over superior courts, and only municipal judges over municipal courts. Guess again, Mr. Logic. Pursuant to a 1991 trial court funding law, in most counties superior and municipal court judges regularly substitute for each other, handling the same kinds of cases, sharing a single administrative staff, and earning comparable salaries. If the superior courts are clogged, your divorce case might be heard by municipal court judge. And if the municipals are jammed, a superior judge might hear your traffic ticket. So the division between superior and municipal courts is increasingly just a formality.

Prop 220 will allow superior and municipal courts in a county to merge if a majority of each of the two benches in that county approve. The surviving entity will be called the Bank of America and be based in Charlotte, NC—oh wait, wrong merger. The surviving entity will be called a superior court, and all sitting municipal court judges will be elevated to the superior court bench (where they've likely been moonlighting anyway).

I can't think of a cogent reason to oppose Prop 220. The pay raise cited in the argument against 220 in your Bill Jones Fun Book is negligible in most counties, and less than 10% at worst. Municipal court judges with twelve months on the bench are eligible to become superior court judges, and many have already been acting in this capacity, so you won't see any change in the quality of robe warrior. And we may even see cost savings and increased productivity in a unified court.

Proposition 221: Discipline of Court Commissioners and Referees - YES

Court commissioners and referees are attorneys hired by individual judges to preside over minor cases like traffic tickets and small claims. There are currently about 370 such "subordinate judicial officers." They report to the judges who hired them, and if there is ever a need for review or discipline, the hiring judges handle that too.

Since these subordinate judicial officers are really acting as judges, though, it makes sense for any complaints and disciplinary action to be handled by same body that disciplines judges. Prop 221 will do exactly this, giving the Commission on Judicial Performance, which oversees judges, power to oversee and discipline court commissioners and referees. 221 will provide uniform performance standards, and keep hiring judges out of the awkward position of having to act on complaints against their good friends.

Proposition 222: Elimination of Work and Education Credits for Second Degree Murderers - NO

Although Prop 222 claims to increase the penalty for murdering a police officer, it actually just restates existing law in that area. So don't vote for Prop 222 just because you want to put cop killers behind bars for life—that will happen whether 222 passes or not.

Prop 222 is really about those convicted of second degree murder of anyone other than a peace officer. Under current law, such inmates may reduce their time in prison by up to 15% by demonstrating good behavior or participating in work or education programs. The idea is that these activities rehabilitate criminals more rapidly, reducing the need to incarcerate them quite so long. Prop 222 will eliminate these good-behavior credits for all prisoners convicted of murder in any degree.

Second degree murder is intentional killing, but without deliberation or premeditation. It is a violent and hideous crime, to be sure, but a crime of passion and momentary loss of control. Yes, most second-degree murderers are probably lifelong, hardened criminals, but you must be able to imagine some inmate who was in the wrong place at the wrong time, who has already served twelve years, and who has consistently demonstrated the behavior and work ethic that will make him or her a decent, contributing member of society. Wouldn't you want the parole board to have the latitude to parole this person two years early? Prop 222 will force the parole board to turn its back on all murderers regardless of circumstances, and eliminate a powerful incentive for good behavior.

If you believe the only way to deal with violent felons is to lock 'em up and throw away the key, feel free to vote for 222. But if, like me, you think it is possible for people who once acted horrendously to change, to learn skills and social norms and self-esteem, and to be corrected by our correctional institutions, you'll vote against 222.

Proposition 223: Capping School District Administration Budgets ("95/5") - NO

Prop 223 will require all school districts to spend no more than 5% of their budgets on administrative costs. This, it is claimed, will put more money where the kids are, at the schools themselves. A laudable goal. But Prop 223's definition of "administrative costs" is so absurdly simple-minded that districts will be able to circumvent its purported intent, albeit at great cost. Then the students will be even worse off than before. Is this your idea of a good law?

Prop 223 says administrative costs include printing and warehousing if it's centralized, but not if it's distributed. So a district could buy photocopiers for each school and use classrooms for textbook storage, and presto, it's in compliance with 223. Sure, the staff at each school will have to do its own printing, and classes will be a bit more crowded, but hey, the accountant says administrative costs are under 5%.

Prop 223 says administrative costs include mainframes and minicomputers, but not "smaller specialized units such as microcomputers or personal computers" [see the Prop Book, section 46652(e)(2)]. So a district could replace its big, old, legacy computers with speedy, modern workstations, and faster than you can say "Year 2000 Bug," it's in compliance with Prop 223. Yeah, it will cost millions of dollars to convert, and data may get lost, but it'll limit those pesky administrative costs.

Prop 223 says administrative costs. . . I think you get the idea. Prop 223 is so poorly crafted that it will give school districts powerful incentives to waste enormous sums of money on stupid tricks designed to bring their budgets under the 5% cap.

Every school district will have to do this, because every school district in California currently spends at least 6% of its budget on administration. But cutting back current expenses won't be enough, because Prop 223 imposes new administrative costs on districts. Each district will have to prepare an annual report detailing its compliance with 223, and another linking expenditures to student performance; and every five years the district will have to pay for an independent "performance audit and fiscal efficiency review." These new expenses won't be small, and they'll have to fit under the 5% cap too.

Prop 223's penalties for noncompliance are absurd. If a district spends one penny more than 5% on administration, it is fined $175 per student. That would be $2 million for Chico Unified, $10 million for San Francisco Unified, and $106 million for Los Angeles Unified. Holy cow! All that for missing an artificial budget target. Who do you think will suffer if the school districts get slammed with these penalties? The school boards? The administrators? No. It will be the students and teachers who pay the price, with less money for teaching and materials. This is asinine.

The fines will be redistributed to complying districts. I can see it now: Of all the districts in the state, only tiny Alpine County Unified will comply. It will have achieved this by firing all its administrators, since its 5% limit, at just $35,000, is spent on Prop 223 paperwork. But look! Here comes over $200 million in fines collected from other districts! It's an avalanche! Boy, those kids in Beverly Hills will sure be jealous when they see Alpine County's 166 students being ferried to class in individual Rolls Royces.

I won't even go into the vague and sinister "performance outcome" provision, or the ulterior motives of the group that put this piece of trash on your ballot. Prop 223 is a terribly misguided attempt to abate what may be a genuine problem. Sadly, like trying to slake a thirst with seawater, it can only make the problem worse.

Proposition 224: Use of State Agencies in Design and Engineering Projects - NO

State and local governments in California build a lot of public works projects, from prisons and hospitals to roads and aqueducts. Although private firms usually construct these projects, the government itself does most of the design and engineering work. Professional engineers and architects in state agencies like Caltrans currently do about 80% of the design and engineering for public works projects. The remaining 20% is contracted out to private engineering firms. By law, governments can contract out such work only if the required services are not available within public agencies (or are needed for just a short time).

Prop 224 seeks to save money by further reducing the amount of public design and engineering work contracted out to private firms. It will do this by changing the way governments award these contracts.

Under current law, whenever the government determines it can't do a design or engineering job itself, it hires the private firm deemed most highly qualified to do to the work. This is more expensive than the cheapest minimally-qualified firm would be, but it results in the best possible engineering work. Think about that next time you're fifty feet above the ground on a freeway overpass.

Under 224, when the government can't do a job, instead of automatically hiring an outside firm, it will have to consider expanding the capabilities of the public agencies. If that turns out to be cheaper, 224 will require the state to perform the design and engineering in-house. Prop 224 biases these cost comparisons heavily in the government's favor, so it is likely the state will pick up a lot of new work. If the state somehow loses the bidding, however, under 224 the government must award the contract to the cheapest minimally-qualified firm.

Either way, the most highly qualified firms that currently do the work will lose. Will this compromise our safety? It's hard to know. But obviously a newly-hired state engineer or a cheaper private engineer won't be as good as what we have today.

Each year, about $100 million in design and engineering contracts is awarded to private firms. If 224 passes, many of those firms will probably go out of business, and their architects and engineers may have to get civil service jobs, probably with lower salaries and benefits. You can think of Prop 224 as the "nationalization" of this $100 million industry. If you oppose bureaucratic expansion in general, this is your cue to stop reading now and vote "no."

But if you're still considering 224 because it looks like it will save money, consider this: Staffing levels at public agencies staffing levels remain relatively steady, but the design and engineering workload fluctuates. If 224 passes, , the public agencies will have to hire more architects and engineers when more work appears. Later, when the workload slackens, the agencies will either have to lay off those same professionals (unlikely—they're in the civil service), or else keep them on as bureaucratic deadwood not even a liberal could love. Unlike private firms, state agencies do not have the option of seeking private-sector contracts when public contracts become scarcer. So those extra architects and engineers will just sit, twiddling their thumbs and wasting, not saving, millions of public dollars.

Proposition 225: Congressional Term Limit Pantomime - NO

There once was a dumb proposition
With Congress Term Limits its mission.
"Any candidates who
Do not wish to pursue
Such term limits deserve harsh perdition."

On ballots, where someone is listed
Who on term limits hasn't insisted,
It shall say, "DISREGARDED
Thus we voters, I guess, are assisted.

But this measure, by other states passed,
Was ruled unconstitutional fast.
So Prop 225,
While appearing alive,
Is just so much dead, useless bombast.

Proposition 226: Reducing Political Contributions by Unions - NO

Prop 226 will diminish the power of unions by reducing how much money they have for political action. Under 226, unions must ask each member to sign an annual statement of permission before they may use any part of that member's dues for political purposes. Since realistically not all members will sign the statement, the unions' political budgets will shrink.

226 will not, however, limit businesses' political budgets. Yes, you may read that 226 is balanced since it also requires businesses to ask yearly permission to use payroll deductions for political purposes. But businesses do not get their political money from employees' paychecks; they get it from sales, profits, and so on. Unions, on the other hand, depend entirely on payroll deductions for their political funding.

For 226 to be fair, it would have to require you and me to sign a statement allowing Chevron to use part of the profits for political purposes every time we bought gas. We'd have to sign statements whenever we went to the grocery store, the hardware store, or the convenience store. Of course it's a ludicrous idea.

"Oh, come off it," you say. "If I don't like what Chevron is doing with my money, I can simply buy from a more responsible competitor. Union members don't have that luxury—if they drop out of the union they lose their jobs. Don't they need Prop 226 to protect them?" You might think so. But in fact, federal labor law already allows union members to withdraw from all but a union's collective bargaining and grievance activities, paying pro-rated dues. 226 is entirely superfluous in this respect.

So you should view Prop 226 as a direct attack on unions: nothing more, nothing less. If you hate unions and all they represent, 226 is for you. Who cares that business outspends labor 10-to-1? Workers have too much clout. Corporations need more protection. What's good for Disney, Bechtel and Gallo is good for America! (Oh, by the way, according to the League of Women Voters, 226 will probably be ruled unconstitutional, so your vote doesn't matter. Neener neener.)

Corporations, churches, environmental groups and charities don't need anyone's permission to use the money they've raised to advance their political agendas. Unions shouldn't either.

Proposition 227: Elimination of Bilingual Education - NO

Let me clear up some myths about Prop 227. First of all, California's public schools are required by federal law to teach English to every single student. The Equal Educational Opportunities Act and subsequent U. S. Supreme Court decisions require schools to give students English proficiency comparable to the average native English speaker. So don't vote for 227 because you want our schools stop coddling immigrants by not teaching them English. Schools have to teach English already; 227 won't change that.

Second, a vote against 227 is not a vote in favor of bilingual education. School districts are already free to use whatever method they feel is most effective for their English-deficient students. In fact, only about half of all English-deficient students are currently in bilingual programs, many just part-time. What 227 will do is restrict school districts' choices.

Without those two issues, what Prop 227 boils down to is a referendum on what teaching method our schools should use. At its heart, 227 asks us, "Is sheltered immersion the most effective way to teach English to non-English-speaking children?"

Do you have the slightest idea how effective sheltered immersion is? Be honest. Uh-huh, I thought so.

So here's some background. One quarter of the children in California's public schools are considered English-deficient. You might think from the recent publicity that all million-plus of them were in bilingual education classes, but as I mentioned above, that's not the case at all. Four different broad categories are currently in use, each on at least 150,000 English-deficient students. Here they are:

  • Bilingual Education: instruction in both English and the child's primary language, in all subjects.
  • Sheltered Immersion: instruction in English only, in a presentation designed specially for those learning the language. Teachers speak slowly, with repetition, using limited vocabulary. About half the students in sheltered immersion programs also take bilingual classes for some subjects; the other half uses sheltered immersion for all subjects.
  • English as a Second Language: regular classes, with English lessons on the side.
  • Regular Classes: over 200,000 English-deficient students receive no special instruction to help them learn English.

Which method is best? The research is contradictory. A National Research Council review of the literature found different studies strongly supporting every method. The only common outcome was that socioeconomic level is a much stronger determinant than teaching method—that is, kids in rich neighborhoods learn English faster than kids in poor neighborhoods, regardless of the method. No conclusion could be reached on whether any method was per se better than any other.

Nevertheless, Prop 227 asks us to wipe out bilingual education in favor of sheltered immersion. (Those taking regular classes or English as a second language won't be affected.) Under 227, most English-deficient students will get one year of sheltered immersion, then be required to move into regular classes.

Given the overwhelming neutrality of the data, on what basis would you eliminate one type of program? Because it's popular? Because eliminating all foreign-language instruction from our schools makes you feel good? Because it somehow seems "sensible," Mr. Education Expert?

This is nuts, folks. We voters are simply not qualified to make decisions on issues like these. Current law gives school districts the flexibility to use any of the programs described above, or to implement new programs as they're developed. When we pass 227, we tell districts we know their business better than they do. As if.

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