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

Read the ratings:
Prop.   1 - YES
Prop. 26 - NO
Prop. 27 - NO
Prop. 28 - NO
Prop. 29 - NO
Prop. 30 - YES
Prop. 31 - YES
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Pete Rates the Propositions
October 2003

Pete recommends:
53   NO   Forced Spending for Infrastructure
54   NO   Prohibiting Classification by Race
  The Recall

Proposition 53: Forced Spending for Infrastructure – NO

Prop 53 is the latest example of the fashionable trend of budgeting by ballot proposition. The fad began fifteen years ago with Prop 98, which permanently sets aside about one third of the General Fund for education. The craze continued last November with Prop 49 (passed), which steers half a billion dollars annually to after-school programs, and Prop 51 (failed), which would have directed a billion bucks a year to a grab-bag of campaign contributors’ pet projects.

This trend is disturbing for a number of reasons, not least because it encourages government-dependent industries (such as construction) to go “over the legislature’s head,” to the voters, if they don’t get what they want in the normal budget process. Consider the incentives. For several million dollars (the cost of an initiative campaign), you have a chance at guaranteed annual payouts in the billions of dollars, forever. It doesn’t take an advanced accounting degree to see why these pork propositions are popular. Expect more of them.

A more serious reason to oppose these propositions is that they impose absurd priorities on state spending. Who really believes that after-school programs are more important than law enforcement, health care, or clean water? Nobody. Yet last year’s 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.

Prop 53 proposes to lock in three percent of the General Fund—more than $2 billion a year—for “pay-as-you-go” infrastructure improvements. Included are such sexy items as state office buildings, prisons, reservoirs, pumping plants, state university campuses, roads and bridges. Currently most of this stuff is financed by bonds. That’s as it should be. It is sensible to use long-term financing for real assets which will be used far into the future.

Not that I have any objection to “pay-as-you-go.” Quite the contrary. If I had an extra $2 billion sitting around, I’d also pay cash instead of financing my next pumping plant. But that’s the problem: California doesn’t have $2 billion to spare.

The author of Prop 53, Assemblymember Keith Richman, recognizes this—he has firsthand experience with Sacramento budget hell, after all—and, bless his heart, he has added a Byzantine series of safety valves and triggers to try to prevent Prop 53 from eating into the General Fund in lean years. Sadly, however, the machinery won’t be up to the task.

Take, for example, the provision to suspend the set-aside (and halve the subsequent year’s) if the General Fund shows a year-to-year decline. Say we enter a multi-year slump, like the one we’re in now. Over the following years, the General Fund will probably show slight growth due to simple population increases, yet we’d still have a budget crisis. The Prop 53 safeguard would be ineffective: year three would see full restoration of the billions in forced spending for infrastructure.

The non-partisan California Budget Project ( has an excellent piece on this, including an analysis of what would have happened with Prop 53’s safety-valve contraption during the past dozen years. They calculate that the required infrastructure spending “would have occurred even in years in which the state faced a significant shortfall. . . In 1991-92, for example, the state faced an estimated $14.3 billion gap . . . yet a Proposition 53 transfer of $285 million would still have been required. And in 1994-95 and 1995-96, as the state still faced shortfalls, General Fund transfers [totaling] $1.4 billion would have been required under Proposition 53.” Their conclusion? “The Real World: Protections may not be sufficient.”

We must put a stop to the trend of budgeting by ballot proposition. It places inflexible formulas—robots, really—in charge of our state government. If those robots are designed poorly, as they are with Prop 53, they’ll run amok, wreaking havoc with more urgently needed state services. Danger, Will Robinson! As it is, the Legislature has discretion over less than one quarter of the General Fund. Let’s not restrict that any further, or we may all find ourselves Lost in Space indeed.

Proposition 54: Prohibiting Classification by Race – NO

It’s hard to fault the sentiment behind Prop 54. Society should be color-blind. All races should be treated the same. It’s a worthy goal, and one I hope we achieve in our lifetimes.

Prop 54 seeks to advance the cause of racial irrelevance by prohibiting state and local governments from classifying people by race. Under 54, agencies would not be allowed to collect data on race, ethnicity, color or national origin for most government operations. There are limited exceptions for law enforcement, medical treatment and research, and to comply with federal law. More exceptions can be added, but only with two-thirds of Assembly and Senate and the Governor’s signature—in other words, not too likely.

I hear two major arguments for forcing state and local agencies to drop racial data. First is “privacy.” I must say, I don’t understand this point at all. My race is self-evident. There’s no way to keep it “private,” even if Prop 54 passes. Besides, if the authors of 54 were really concerned with my privacy, I can think of a hundred things I’d rather keep hidden: my age, weight, religion, sexual habits, financial accounts, tax returns, bookstore purchases, medical records, and on and on. Prop 54 cannot possibly be about privacy, because the area of privacy it addresses is so microscopically narrow. I’m tempted to say the privacy angle is pure spin, just a crock of baloney. In fact, I will. It’s baloney. Don’t buy it.

The more compelling argument for Prop 54 is that it’s time for the government to take the lead in achieving a race-blind society. “Colorblindness doesn’t just happen,” says Prop 54’s author, Ward Connerly. “The government has always guided, and informed and pulled people along when it comes to this issue of race.” [San Jose Mercury News, Sept. 7, 2003]

I agree. Government should be out front in the battle against racism. Prop 54, however, asks the government not to lead, but to step out of the way by disregarding race altogether.

Over the past fifty years government has taken an active role in fighting racial strife. Affirmative action, school busing, Equal Housing, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, to name a few, are active steps our government has taken to help us become more integrated and less race-conscious. Prop 54 proposes to advance equality by ignoring racial differences. That might work someplace else, like, say, Mars. But on my planet, when governments adopt a laissez-faire attitude toward race, problems get worse, not better.

Think about the message Prop 54 will send to racists and bigots: Go to town! State and local governments will be forced to turn a blind eye toward discrimination, since they won’t be able to detect racial distinctions. This is worse, not better.

Am I exaggerating? I think not. The City of Palo Alto reports that under Prop 54, it will be unable to implement its anti-discrimination policy, and its police department will be unable to investigate racial profiling. Many civil rights groups assert that Prop 54 will jeopardize the prosecution of hate crimes. And Prop 54 will effectively eliminate all non-federally-mandated functions of the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing in 2014. This is worse, not better.

Even Tom Wood, author of the anti-affirmative action Prop 209, sees Prop 54 as a step backward. In an interview with Cybercast News Service [, Aug. 18, 2003], he points out that Prop 54 will eliminate a crucial tool in proving racial discrimination in government hiring and university admissions. “My main issue with it . . . is if you don't have the data, you can't enforce anti-discrimination laws, including 209.” Largely because of this, Wood opposes Prop 54.

On top of all that, Prop 54 has possible public health implications. It’s true that paragraph 32(f) of the initiative states that “…classification of medical research subjects and patients shall be exempt [from the ban].” But the ban may still apply to respondents to medical surveys, for example, and even to birth and death records. We don’t know; because of the new wording, the courts will have to decide. Should it turn out that Prop 54 bans racial classification in these cases, it would put a serious dent in our ability to find cancer hot spots, track disease trends, and craft effective, community-specific public health messages.

Yes, I wish we lived in a world where race didn’t matter. But this initiative will not help us achieve that vision. Yes, it annoys me mildly to choose a race on forms. But the price Prop 54 asks us to pay is far out of proportion to the nuisance it only half-eliminates. This initiative clearly will do far more harm than good. It deserves your NO vote.

The Recall

As my regular readers know, I do not rate candidates. I have nothing to say here on whether to recall Gray Davis. But I do have a few words of advice on voting for his potential replacement. With over a hundred 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 person, even if he or she is not among the poll-anointed "front-runners."

That's often the right way to vote in a primary election, because even if your heartthrob loses, you know your party will have somebody more or less acceptable running in the general election. But this is not a primary; it's a general election, winner take all. And the winner will be decided 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, or you can vote your heart's true desire let the rest of us elect 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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