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
November 2000

Pete recommends:
32   YES   Cal-Vet Loan Program
33   YES   Pensions for State Legislators
34   NO   Campaign Finance Reform: Repeal of Prop 208
35   YES   Allowing Private Contractors for Public Works Projects
36   YES   Treatment Programs Instead of Prison for Drug Offenders
37   NO   Reclassifying Fees as Taxes
38   NO   School Vouchers
39   YES   55% Vote for School Bonds

Proposition 32: 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 29 (Nov. '84), 42 (June '86), 76 (June '88), 142 (Nov. '90), 206 (Nov. '96) and the current Prop 32. I heartily recommend a vote in favor of 32 to ensure the continuation of this smashing success.

Proposition 33: Pensions for State Legislators - YES

Those who voted for Prop 140 ten years ago simply wanted term limits for state legislators. 140 may have had other provisions, such as cutting legislators' office budgets, but most voters took no notice. If Prop 140 did anything besides limiting terms, it would be just an unintended side effect. One such side effect took away the Legislators' Retirement System. Members of the state Senate and Assembly are now ineligible for any pension plan other than Social Security.

The California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS) manages pensions for more than one million California public employees, retirees, and families. It is the largest public pension system in the United States, with about $160 billion in assets. It serves 2,400 government agencies, from local school districts to counties to statewide de­part­­ments. Prop 33 will allow state legislators participate in CalPERS's pension programs.

Being in the state legislature is a full-time, executive-level job that can last up to 14 years. Retirement plans are a standard benefit these days. Yet our legislators have none, and are thus second-class public employees. Prop 140 has hobbled them enough, slashing their staffs and limiting their time in office. Denying them decent pensions for their time in service has simply added insult to injury. 33 is our chance to correct that small mistake.

Proposition 34: Campaign Finance Reform: Repeal of Prop 208 - NO

Prop 34 effectively repeals Prop 208, which passed with over 60% of the vote in 1996. Originally put forward by the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, Prop 208 imple­ments strong and sensible campaign finance reform for state and local offices. It is currently in legal limbo, awaiting a ruling on its constitutionality in federal court. It now appears headed for reinstatement, and that spells trouble for the state's political power brokers, who don't want their cash flow inhibited. Desperate to avoid 208's limits, they have disguised their repeal of 208 as a new reform measure. Oh, sure, Prop 34 has "reform" provisions, but they are so laughably weak and full of loopholes that they're practically worthless. They're pure subterfuge. The backers of 34 are hoping to fool us into repealing 208 by claiming 34 offers the only available relief from the current, unregulated free-for-all. Don't fall for it.

Prop 208 limits what individuals and organizations can contribute to political campaigns. For example, individuals can give no more than $500 to any campaign for state legislature. The legal challenge against Prop 208 claims that its limits are so low they un­con­stitutionally infringe free speech. This is what sank 208's predecessor, Prop 73 of 1988. Earlier this year, though, the U. S. Supreme Court upheld a Missouri law similar to Prop 208. This decision, Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Government PAC, affirmed contribution limits ran­­ging from $275 to $1,075. As a result, most observers now expect 208 will also be upheld.

Among those expecting Prop 208 to survive are the leaders of Sacramento's political estab­lishment, including many legislators. To them, 208 represents a lethal threat, the cutting off of what ‘70s power boss Jesse Unruh called "the mother's milk of politics." State Senate President pro Tempore John Burton, himself the recipient of millions of dollars in contributions, largely from special interests (such as $40,000 from the Pipe Trades Council and $15,000 from Santa Anita racetrack), has given legislators a sneaky way out. They could offer their own, loophole-riddled version of campaign finance reform to the voters, with the oh-so-unfortunate side effect of repealing Prop 208. Remember that as long as 208 is in limbo, California has no contribution or spending limits, so the new bill can be presented as a true step forward, the first meaningful campaign finance measure in the state's history. So, hoping the voters have short memories, they have presented us with Prop 34.

But the contribution and spending limits in Prop 34 are outrageously high. Take the aforementioned $500 limit on contributions for legislative races. Under 34, it increases six-fold to $3,000. Contribution limits for statewide office quintuple from $1,000 to $5,000, except for gubernatorial races, which increase twenty times from $1,000 to $20,000. What kind of campaign finance reform is this?

Under 34, voluntary spending limits will balloon similarly. The total spending limit for primary and general elections will increase from $300,000 to $1.1 million for assembly races, $600,000 to $1.5 million for state senate, $3 million to $10 million for statewide offices except governor, and $12 million to $16 million for governor.

"Ooh, ooh," you say. "Assembly and non-gubernatorial statewide office spending caps more than triple under 34, but the governor's race spending limit bulges a mere thirty-three percent. What gives?" A more apt question would be, "Who gives?" but I'll cut you some slack. The answer is, soft money gives. That's money donated to a candidate's party, not his campaign, for "non-advocacy" activities. Officially these activities are supposed to be operational or general in nature, but over the years they have become a major way of supporting a candidate. Prop 208 banned soft money for state and local campaigns. Prop 34 writes the right to contribute soft money into law. Of course the state parties will want to support the gubernatorial candidates at the head of their tickets, and soft money is the way to do that. Therefore the authors of Prop 34 didn't need to jack up the official spending limit for governor's races quite as much.

Under Prop 208, political parties can contribute only 25% of a candidate's spending ceiling; this would be $75,000 for assembly and $3 million for governor. Prop 34 eliminates this limit, allowing parties to fund state and local races fully. 34 also eliminates 208's aggregate contribution limits from corporations, unions and PACs, and repeals 208's ban on off-year fundraising. This is no reform at all.

A word of caution: Nixon v. Shrink Missouri notwithstanding, it is by no means certain the federal courts will uphold Prop 208. If 34 fails and 208 dies, California will still have no limits on campaign fundraising and spending. If you believe the courts will strike down 208, or if you're particularly risk-averse, you may be tempted to vote for Prop 34 just so we'll have something on the books. Don't do it. Prop 34 was written by the political elite, for the political elite. There were virtually no public hearings, and no public input to its provisions. Prop 34 does not deserve to become law. If 208 is struck down, you can be sure the League of Women Voters, Common Cause, and the other sponsors of 208 will be back soon with a court-proof reform measure designed for the people. Vote for that when and if it's needed.

Prop 34 is a Trojan horse. It claims to offer much-needed campaign finance reform for state and local offices. And to look at the official argument against it (orchestrated by the sponsors!), you'd have a hard time finding otherwise. But 34 will repeal a much tougher initiative that should go into effect soon, replacing it with sky-high limits and a rat's nest of loopholes and soft-money privileges. If we pass Prop 34, we'll be playing right into the hands of the big-money politicians whose power this is supposed to limit in the first place.

Proposition 35: Allowing Private Contractors for Public Works Projects - YES

Our state and local governments hire private firms to do all manner of things, from food service to tree trimming to childcare. In most cases the government hires outsiders because it lacks people with the proper expertise. In the case of engineering and architectural services, however, the state has a large pool of qualified employees, mainly in Caltrans.

During the lean years of the Pete Wilson administration (1990-98), the state increasingly used private contractors to design and build major projects, including many roads, bridges and mass transit systems. In the words of the Los Angeles Times, Wilson "gutted the ranks of the state's Caltrans engineers and swung the pendulum sharply toward privatization." The engineers filed a lawsuit, citing a restriction in the state Constitution against using non-civil service workers for government work. The engineers won, forcing the state to use its own, decimated workforce. As a consequence, the engineering backlog has grown so enormous that the Sacramento Bee estimates the state must hire 1,500 new engineers to handle it. The current Gray Davis administration has been slowly rebuilding civil-service engineering capacity, but many think it will be too little, too late.

Prop 35 will amend the Constitution to eliminate the restriction against hiring private firms for engineering and architectural projects. This will effectively overturn the court decision favoring the civil-service engineers, and return us to the privatization days of the Wilson administration.

So why do I think this is a good idea? Well, consider what will happen in 35 fails. Transit projects will fall further and further behind schedule. Traffic will get worse. Mass transit improvements will be delayed. In a few years (maybe) the economy will cool, and the budget for fixing our highways and rail lines will vanish. We will have missed this opportunity to invest in our infrastructure. At the same time, the government will have been hiring engineers as fast as it possibly can to handle the bulge in the workload. When the budget crunch comes (or the backlog becomes smaller), the state will have to turn right around and lay them off. This is not my idea of efficient government.

Prop 35 will give the state the flexibility to hire many contractors quickly when it needs them, and then painlessly cut back just as quickly. If you're troubled by the proposition's lack of a requirement for competitive bidding, let me point out that many of these engineering projects require rare expertise, and for safety's sake the quality of the work should be the paramount consideration. The state would be ill-served by choosing a marginally lower bid for significantly inferior designs or construction. So here I am willing to forego competitive bidding.

Although I recommend a "yes" vote for Prop 35, it is not without some hesitancy. Prop 35 is special-interest legislation put forward by the companies who expect to receive the contracts. Check out the monetary supporters at­contest_filers.asp. You'll find Vulcan Materials, Granite Construction, AECOM Technology, CH2M Hill, and other engineering and architectural concerns. I always look askance at any initiative written by those who would directly benefit from its passage. Prop 35 falls squarely into that category. Nevertheless, on balance I see benefit from its passage; the current situation is simply untenable. So hold your nose and vote for Prop 35.

Proposition 36: Treatment Programs Instead of Prison for Drug Offenders - YES

I understand why drug dealers should go to prison. The wares they sell cause addictions that destroy peoples' lives. Dealers should be incarcerated to prevent them from victimizing more people, to punish them, and to deter future criminal behavior.

But what is the point of putting nonviolent drug users behind bars? Sure, it punishes them. But does it save victims or deter future criminal behavior? Not if the users are addicted. The rate of recidivism is alarmingly high: 46% of parole violations leading to incarceration are due to nonviolent drug violations. Today nearly 20,000 inmates in California prisons—one eighth of all inmates—have been convicted of simple drug possession. Clearly prison isn't doing it for these people. We need a better approach.

Prop 36 will require people convicted of nonviolent drug possession to receive probation and court-supervised treatment services instead of jail time. Parolees with no serious or violent prior felonies may also be diverted into this treatment system if they violate a drug-related condition of parole, rather than facing re-incarceration. Excluded from Prop 36 treatment programs are drug manufacturers and dealers, violent felons, and those convicted of another crime at the same court proceeding. Participants are given two chances to succeed; three-time losers get jail instead of treatment programs.

Prop 36 puts illegal drug use into the proper perspective. Yes, drug abuse is bad and should be attacked by the state, but not with the same intensity as violence, burglary or fraud. The 1994 California Drug and Alcohol Treatment Assessment study found that criminal activity drops 66 percent following substance abuse treatment. That kind of rehabilitation is what I want out of our criminal justice system. If we can make victimless drug users into better citizens without locking them up, why shouldn't we?

Proposition 37: Reclassifying Fees as Taxes - NO

Imagine an industry is causing some social or environmental harm, such as addiction, pollution, illness, habitat loss, or traffic jams. Imagine further that your state or local government comes up with a way to address this harm, such as treatment programs, hospitals, environmental restoration, or mass transit. It seems natural for the industry that causes the harm to help pay for the program. This is currently accomplished through "fees" that are paid by the offending industries and used exclusively for the associated programs. Under current law, such fees may be enacted by a simple majority of the state legislature or local governing body.

Prop 37 would increase the hurdle for imposing such fees to two-thirds of the state legislature for statewide programs, and two thirds of the voters for most local programs. It would accomplish this by reclassifying such fees as taxes. To quote the proposition, "... compulsory fees enacted after July 1, 1999, to monitor, study or mitigate the societal or economic effects of an activity ... shall be deemed state taxes subject to the two-thirds vote requirement..."

Prop 37 is an effort by industry to duck fees it legitimately owes by raising obstacles to their enactment. The coalition supporting 37 comprises the big boys: Philip Morris ($350,000), Chevron ($200,000), the Wine Institute ($275,000), the Distilled Spirits Council ($200,000), R. J. Reynolds ($170,000), and so on. (See for a full report.) They're unhappy with a recent state Supreme Court decision upholding industry fees for programs that benefit the public at large, not just themselves. These corporations have the money to get special-interest propositions like 37 on your ballot, and they can influence one-third of the legislature to vote their way if 37 passes.

The practice of imposing fees to mitigate harm caused by industry is a good one. Prop 37 will unnecessarily limit that practice. Let's not let a moneyed interest buy itself a law that lets it off the hook.

Proposition 38: School Vouchers - NO

Prop 38, this year's voucher initiative, claims it will solve horrific problems in our failing public schools with its radical plan. Unfortunately the plan will address virtually none of the cited problems. Instead, it will cause drastic changes and turmoil with unpredictable consequences in all schools, even the best ones. Is this a good idea? I think not.

Under Prop 38, every school-age child will receive an annual $4,000 voucher, good towards one year of education at any school, public or private. This is supposed to solve the problem of poor students being trapped in inferior public schools in rotten districts. The students, the argument goes, will use the vouchers to enroll in better (private) schools. The bad public school will wither on the vine as students depart, leaving a vibrant, high-performing community of voucher-funded private schools in its place. Eventually the evil public school district will either come up to snuff or dry up and blow away.

There are several problems with this scenario. First, the private schools can't take all the public school students who might want to transfer. There are only about 60,000 vacancies in California private schools; there are 6 million schoolchildren. If only one child in one hundred chooses to use a voucher, the private schools will be swamped. The private schools' responses could be (1) increase class sizes, (2) quickly hire new, untested teachers, or (3) turn down new voucher students. The first two options would compromise the private schools' supposed advantages, while the last would defeat the whole idea of Prop 38.

Second, under Prop 38 private schools may turn away students based on academic performance. So if your kid is underachieving because his current public school is no good, he'll be unlikely to gain admission to a decent private school. How will vouchers help him? Good question.

Such a student is likely to end up at the kind of "school" I described in my rating of the similar Prop 174 in 1993:

Prop 174 imposes virtually no standards on private schools to be eligible for vouchers. The teachers don't have to be certified. The buildings don't have to be safe. The students don't have to learn. In fact, if Prop 174 passes, I'm considering opening a private school of my own. It will be in a leaky, drafty, asbestos-encrusted warehouse I can rent for cheap. 174 imposes no limits on class size, so I'll have one teacher and 400 students. At $2,600 a kid, I'll net over a million dollars a year. (174 allows schools to be run for profit.) I'll "teach" my students by letting them watch MTV for six hours a day. That'll keep them out of my hair, plus I'll be paid extra by the TV network for exposing my kids to their commercials. If attracting students becomes a problem, I've already got a solution. Under Prop 174, if parents find a school that charges less than the face value of the voucher, they can keep the excess for future educational use. So I'll just offer the lowest price around, and parents will flock to my school ... And I won't admit any handicapped children because they cost me too much ... Under Prop 174 I'm within my rights to do these things.
Guess what! Prop 38 has exactly the same provisions (except the voucher is worth $1,400 more). The fantasy that all, or even most, private schools are ipso facto better than public schools is one of the great deceptions of this campaign.

Third, what of the students left behind? Pro-38 literature says the initiative will "strengthen public education by reducing class sizes and raising the amount of money spent per student, leading to smaller, safer, more disciplined schools." (See This is very hard to believe. Each student who leaves a public school takes $4,000 of funding. School districts won't be able to maintain current levels of service with that kind of leakage. They'll have to let teachers go and close whole schools to remain solvent. That won't lead to smaller classes or schools, just fewer of them. I doubt this is your idea of "strengthening" public education.

The aforementioned leaflet also claims 38 will save "billions of dollars over time." That is quite open to debate. The Legislative Analyst estimates a possible cost of two billion dollars a year, depending on how many students use vouchers.

The pro-38 leaflet says the proposition will "provide new and exciting career oppor­tuni­ties for teachers." Of course it will: Prop 38 will force school districts to lay off hundreds, perhaps thousands, of teachers. If you want to call that "providing new and exciting career opportunities," go ahead. I call it "systematically dismantling our public schools."

Finally, there's the church-state aspect of Prop 38. Vouchers amount to a public subsidy of what today are largely religious schools. Most of these schools teach good values, but not all. Do you really want your tax dollars supporting the teaching of "creation science," male supremacy, or intolerance of certain religions, ethnicities or orientations?

Prop 38 is a reckless attempt to destroy California's public schools and replace them with a haphazard network of unregulated private schools. It will not help our children learn. If there are problems in our public schools, let's find a solution that fixes them, not tears them down.

Proposition 39: 55% Vote for School Bonds - YES

The Majority and the Two-Thirds Vote were sharing tea and snacks,
And arguing about which one should raise the property tax.
"My friend," the Two-Thirds Vote intoned, "you're gen'rous to a fault.
If we used you our mortgages would all be in default."

"Pish tosh," Majority rejoined. "The voters aren't that dumb.
With me they'd raise their taxes to a manageable sum,
Because of you the poor school districts hardly get a crumb,
Since Two-Thirds Votes on ballots near-consistently succumb."

"Exactly as it ought to be!" the Two-Thirds Vote declared,
"For it's all, not just your greater part, who then become ensnared
In a property tax spiral that will go on, unimpaired,
‘Till we all go broke!" With that, he took a sip and glumly stared.

"Yet we both agree," Majority contritely now observed,
"That our schools are in a state of disrepair that's undeserved.
If we do not let the people of a local district choose
That they want to raise their taxes, it's the children who will lose."

The Majority and the Two-Thirds Vote fell silent once again.
They had had this fight so often that it ceased to entertain.
They were just about to leave when they espied somebody new:
‘Twas the Fifty-Five Percent, to interrupt their pas-de-deux.

"May I beg your pardons, please," the Fifty-Five Percent inquired,
"For I couldn't help but overhear the spat that just transpired.
If it isn't too, too forward, I suggest you split the diff.
Maybe letting voters use me would resolve your little tiff."

"Oh, get lost!" the Two-Thirds shrieked, "before I say something obscene.
For the voters made me king when they passed sacred Prop 13.
I protect their prop'ty tax bills from inflating past good sense.
If we substitute your weaker will, they will have no defense."

"Not to differ," Fifty-Five replied, "but Prop 13 contained
Things more powerful than you to cause tax hikes to be restrained.
It's the cap on reassessments, not your Vote, that holds ‘em pat.
Local voters using me will add just modest sums to that."

Recognizing he was beaten now, the Two-Thirds Vote made tracks.
He could see that Fifty-Five Percent should raise the prop'ty tax.
How to implement this great idea? We need a new device.
Proposition 39 upon this ballot will suffice.

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