Policy Today

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Written by John Foley   
Monday, 06 November 2006
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Citizens take matters into their own hands as environmentalists, big oil and tobacco fight ballot initiatives.

The gentle murmur of participatory democracy became a dull roar in California this year. As a result, voters frustrated with partisan gridlock will have the chance to weigh in on 13 ballot initiatives this Tuesday. When Californians head to the polls, they will decide on on subjects such as alternative energy development, the cost of a pack of cigarettes, transportation and infrastructure funding, sex offender regulation, eminent domain and whether parents should be notified before a minor has an abortion. Needless to say, their decisions on these issues will likely have social, economic and legal implications beyond the Golden State's borders. And that's not even counting measures dealing with kindergarten facilities, emergency shelter, disaster preparedness, water quality and campaign funding.

The fervor itself is a kind of victory for those pushing the initiatives. California voters have beaten a well-worn path to the polls over the past several years, and many citizens suffer as much from "voter fatigue" as they do from "voter apathy."

Without further ado, a quick overview of some of the issues voters will face tomorrow:

Prop 87 - Oil tax: Spending "unheard of amounts"

One of the most contentious propositions on the ballot folds several sensitive subjects into one: Prop. 87. Spanning the gamut of environmental, economic and political anxieties, the measure has inspired a bitter fight between its proponents and its detractors. Driving the total funding for the campaign into the stratosphere, reportedly approaching $120 million, oil executives and environmentalists alike are spending as though this is the epic battle in a long fought war. The enormous expenditure number could ultimately equate to more than $10.00 per voter. "It's an unheard of amount of money to be spent on an election," says one campaign analyst.

When a spokesperson for Gilliard Blanning Wysocki and Associates, a California campaign management company, (who is choreographing the campaign for the supporters of Proposition 83), was told of the money spent on the oil-tax initiative her response was simply, "Wow."

This is big guns, big bucks campaign season. And the battle over the oil tax will prove to be the costliest of all, possibly for years to come. In most years butting heads on the campaign trail with oil industry giants frequently proves fruitless, if for no other reason than because no one else can compete dollar-for-dollar. But Prop 87 has the benefit of an electorate worried about foreign oil dependence and global warming, not to mention its stable of high-profile supporters.

Former Vice President Al Gore was the first face of the Prop 87 campaign only to be followed by his former boss, President Bill Clinton. Gracing the airwaves nightly, the oil tax initiative has rallied environmentalists along the California coast. And, with the assistance of Hollywood producer Stephen Bing who has donated over $40 million to the campaign, the contest may come down to the wire.

The question posed is simple: Should California establish a $4 billion Clean Alternative Energy Program to reduce the state's oil and gasoline consumption by 25% through incentives for alternative energy, education and training? Hollywood seems to think so. Prop 87's vocal supporters include Larry David, Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, Rob Reiner and William Randolph Hearst III, among others.

Prop 84: Waterworld

Proposition 84 asks voters to approve the sale of discretionary bonds totaling $5.4 billion for projects related to water safety, quality, river and lake protection, flood control projects, energy conservation, coast protection, the future development and acquisition of state parks, and water planning. The cost of the project over 30 years would be $5.4 billion in principal and $5.1 billion in interest.

Bill Leonard of the State Board of Equalization signed the opposition papers for 84, and was exceptionally adamant about his position.

"I don't believe that organizations that will financially gain from the passing of a proposition should be involved in supporting it," says Leonard. "If I wanted to put a proposition on the ballot that said 'Bill Leonard gets a tax cut' I think the authorities would be paying me a visit. It should be illegal for the people to get the money if they initiated the measure."

Prop 86: $50 million spent to fight $2.60 hike in cigarette tax

David and Goliath are bristling in another battle over Prop. 86, the Tax on Cigarette Initiative. Phillip Morris, Inc. and R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company have tallied almost $50 million to fight the proposition, which would hike the cost of a pack of cigarettes by an additional $2.60 in the state. Needless to say, $6 packs of cigarettes are a hard pill for the tobacco giants to swallow, and they're throwing out everything but the kitchen sink to stop it. Enter New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who contributed $250,000 and considerable political clout to the campaign in mid October. Aside from Bloomberg, the American Cancer Society, California Hospital Committee and a variety of cancer foundations have raised almost $15 million to go toe to toe with the high rollers.

The tax increase would be desig-nated to fund hospital emergency services, health insurance for children and would expand tobacco use prevention programs. Estimated to generate revenues of $2.1 billion per year, the new tax would more than double the government's share of each pack sold. Supporters hope that it will double the number of quitters and non-starters as well.

Prop 89: Corporate tax hike to fund state office candidates

Proposition 89 would tax corporations for publicly funded campaigns. To pay for the campaigns, taxes on corporations would be raised from 8.84%to 9.04% and taxes on financial institutions would increase from 10.84% to 11.04%. The state would see a benefit of $200 million per year. The measure also caps donations from individuals, groups, corporations and political parties. These caps would apply to both candidates and ballot measures.

"This measure challenges our political system. If it passes it will be deemed illegal by the courts and will cost the taxpayers more money. Public campaign funding does nothing more than tax corporations and challenge the system," says Contra Costa County Assessor, Gus Kramer.

Prop 89 may indeed "challenge" the political system. The proposition's supporters say that's exactly the point. "Our political system shouldn't be an exclusive club for the wealthy," says Dan Tating, a northern California high school teacher who supports Prop. 89. "We need to level the playing field so that politics can return to a battle of ideas instead of a battle of wallets."

Prop 90: Paying more for eminent domain seizures

More than any other initiative on the ballot this year, Proposition 90 appeals to deep-rooted American values. But while the argument may be sound, what about the language? The debate over Prop. 90 swirls around one paragraph buried deep in the text of the legislation that appears ripe for legal challenge. The proposition starts out simply enough, with the intent of amending the state constitution to place tighter controls on eminent domain takeovers of private property. Fair enough.

But the devil is in the details, and the details could potentially equal billions of dollars, depending on a court ruling here or there. The measure specifies that the government must pay property owners if a new law or rule imposes "substantial economic losses" on the owners of the property. But just how much is a "substantial?" That's the tricky part, and the debate hinges significantly on that one word.

Ultimately, voters wishing to pass legislation to protect private property may inadvertantly vote for a measure ripe for abuse, or alternatively, vote against their best opportunity to protect their properties from 2005's worrisome Supreme Court decision in Kelo. If California voters are feeling like they just can't win, who can blame them?

The wrap

No one is debating the importance of these ballot measures to a great many people. They are the result of long policy debates, exhausting signature drives and the successful navigation of a complicated state bureaucracy. But with millions upon millions of dollars dumped into the election by special interests of every shape and color, the ballot becomes more confusing with each passing day. "If I vote for this, will I be creating another bloated state bureaucracy, or contributing to $8 per gallon gasoline?" one voter asked. "I got a 200-page 'voter information book' in the mail, but what am I supposed to do with that? I already have a full-time job."


About John Foley

John Foley is a freelance journalist, writer and editor based in San Francisco, California.




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