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Illustration by Tim Eagan

Prop Rites

Pay attention to those tricky initiatives. Thanks to millions spent in misinformation campaigns, things are not always as they appear.

WE WISH we could say "Vote No on All the Props." We think the initiative process, while a well-intended avenue for dealing with unresponsive elected officials, is now at the stage where it is overused, abused and otherwise bastardized by special interests.

We think the initiative process is no more of an avenue for democracy than Dr. Kevorkian's work can be called "healing."

There--we've said it.

But as fate would have it, we found that there are a few propositions in this year's lineup that we actually like. (And there are some we don't like but think should be supported anyway.)

And despite our frustrations with the system, we empathize with readers who will try to arrive at sensible decisions with their voter pamphlets spread out on the table before them. How does a person figure out who's behind what, what the language really means, who benefits and who loses, when special interests have paid millions to create confusion?

You may not agree with our final recommendations, but at least you'll know why. Here's our shot at making the props easy.


Propositions 1A and 29
Indian Gaming

The California Indian tribes backing Prop. 1A say it's merely an amendment to the California Constitution that cause last year's gaming proposition to be overturned. But it hardly stops there.

Prop. 1A allows house-banked card games like blackjack. It would also allow tribes to operate up to two casinos on tribal property, opening the door for some tribes to open casinos on newly purchased property in urban areas. If 1A passes, the state could end up with 113,000 slot machines in as many as 200 casinos. And the kicker: It would also allow 18-year-olds to gamble.

Rather than fighting to preserve their Nevada monopoly this time around, casino operators have actually invested--in California's tribal casinos. This can't be good. The scant opposition to Prop. 1A is an underfunded coalition of religious groups and community activists.

Prop. 29, the other gaming initiative on the ballot, is the compact that 11 tribes signed with former Gov. Pete Wilson. It limits the number of tribes involved in gaming, curtails the number of slot machines and prohibits the kind of card games that opponents fear could turn the Golden State into the gaming state. If Prop. 1A passes, Prop. 29 becomes irrelevant. Neither side has spent much money on Prop. 29, and the tribes are quietly hoping it loses.

What a stinkpot. While gambling is hardly foreign to California (with a state-sponsored lottery, card rooms, horse racing and day trading) the tribes want to push it farther than it has been taken in the past. The language in Prop. 1A was approved by both Gov. Davis and the Legislature (tribes have donated campaign money generously to Davis and many lawmakers). While we think they have the right to ask for special treatment--tribes are nations, and it is only because of a 1988 federal law that they must negotiate with states over gambling at all--Prop. 1A goes too far.

Recommendations: No on 1A, Yes on 29.


Proposition 12
Safe Neighborhood Parks, Clean Water, Clean Air, and Coastal Protection Bond Act of 2000

The Libertarian-backed opposition to this measure calls the $2.1 billion bond a wasteful expenditure on "more dirt for insects, rats and weeds." If prime agricultural land is "dirt," endangered species are "insects and rats" and redwood trees are "weeds"--and if preserving them is a waste--then they're right. This is a far-reaching bond with broad implications for the quality of life and the state's economy, and it's overdue; the last parks bond passed in 1988. If Prop. 12 passes, it will allocate between $500 million and $700 million to fund urban recreation facilities like parks, playgrounds, zoos, sports fields and urban open space. Another $25 million will go to farmland protection. The rest--some $1.5 billion--will pay for improvements to county and state parks, acquisitions of more parklands and natural areas across the state, preservation of wildlife habitat and watershed protection. As the mosaic of supporting groups suggests (cheerleaders include the Sierra Club, California Chambers of Commerce and the California Taxpayers Association), preserving California's beautiful environment isn't just for treehuggers anymore.

Recommendation: Yes on 12.


Proposition 13
Safe Drinking Water, Clean Water, Watershed Protection, and Flood Protection Bond Act

Proponents of this $1.9 billion bond act couldn't have asked for a better ad campaign than the recent drenching of Central California. If the flooded streets in Pescadero and the mudslides in the Oakland hills didn't convince people that $292 million spent on flood control is a good idea, then maybe the angry brown of a Pacific Ocean sullied by river erosion in the days after the storm makes the point. Worse yet, the California Department of Water Resources predicts that in five years water shortages are going to be a serious problem unless the state changes its water management strategy. Here comes the new Prop. 13 to the rescue. The measure covers a range of services. If it passes, $70 million will go to improve public water systems, $292 million will go to flood protection (including special attention to Santa Cruz), $468 million will flow to watershed protection, including acquisition of coastal salmon habitat, and $1.2 billion will fund water recycling, seawater intrusion control, water conservation and groundwater storage. This one we really can't live without.

Recommendation: Yes on 13.


Proposition 14
Library Bonds

It's far too easy to overlook libraries. Quiet, unassuming and not exactly known for attracting employees who are rabid political animals, local literary havens have gotten the shaft for far too long. California's libraries did receive $90 million from state and federal governments over the last decade, but that amount only covered about 10 percent of their operating costs. Proposition 14 would allow the state to help out by selling $350 million in general obligation bonds, which could then be used to fund grants for new facilities, renovation of existing branch locations, and better equipment. Like a similar proposition which passed in 1988, Prop. 14 requires that local agencies in areas benefiting from bigger and better facilities help foot the bill. It may have an inelegant name--the California Reading and Literacy Improvement and Public Library Construction and Renovation Bond Act of 2000--but its heart is in the right place.

Recommendation: Yes on 14.


Proposition 15
Crime Lab Bonds

Prop. 15 isn't getting much press--bond measures, even for worthy causes, are not politically sexy--but it is worth a few minutes of your time to consider.

Prop. 15 would authorize the sale of $220 million in state general obligation bonds for new local forensic laboratories and the remodeling of existing labs. The money could only be used for construction and equipment, not for administrative salaries.

The two houses of the Legislature voted a combined 100 to 15 to put Prop. 15 on the ballot, and we side with the majority. Modern crime-fighting requires modern tools, but the best reason, in our view, is to make it tougher for rogue cops like the cowboys in the LAPD's Rampart Division to frame and convict innocent citizens. Prop. 15 would upgrade the ability of local law enforcement to analyze DNA evidence--a scary prospect for the guilty, but a godsend to the falsely accused.

Recommendation: Yes on 15.


Proposition 16
Veterans Homes

Here's a good example of a problem that needs fixing, but with the wrong proposal to fix it.

Prop. 16 would authorize $50 million in general obligation bonds for veterans homes for U.S. military vets who are California residents. Such homes generally receive 65 percent of their funding from the federal government, as will be the case here.

But only $26 million of Prop. 16 will actually go to building new facilities. The rest will go to replacing more costly bonds on previous veterans homes with cheaper bonds. With a $4 billion surplus going into the last budget negotiations, why couldn't the Legislature have found a paltry $26 million to build these facilities? Bonds are not cheap, and paying them off generally doubles their cost in taxes.

Big-ticket items like parks and schools sometimes need alternative funding sources, and bonds can be used as a funding source of last resort. But this is not a good candidate.

Recommendation: No on 16.


Proposition 17
Charity Raffles

Currently, all raffles in California are illegal except the state lottery. If passed, this proposition would lift the ban on charitable raffles--not commercial raffles--allowing private nonprofits to raise money. As anyone who's ever paid a buck to win a trip to Bermuda and raise money to fight pancreas disease knows, legitimate charities have used raffles for decades. These worthy albeit illegal raffles, however, are misdemeanor crimes and are punishable by up to six months in jail. Prop. 17 supporters, including the California Association of Nonprofits and the California District Attorney's Association, say the current law forces local law enforcement to shut down legitimate fundraisers or "look the other way" and ignore the law. Opponents argue the initiative invites crime and opens the proverbial doors of opportunity to phony charities waiting to prey on honest people. As if scam artists don't have enough chances to do that already. However, nonprofits themselves aren't buying into the anti-Prop. 17 argument, which should count for something.

Recommendation: Yes on 17.


Proposition 18
Special-Circumstance Crimes

Ready to serve up a little law and order?

Prop. 18 would set new guidelines for so-called special circumstances calling for either the death penalty or life without the possibility of parole in first-degree murder cases instead of the current sentence of 25 years to life.

It's a probable shoo-in, since voters already have showed their support for this kind of issue. It's also a bit esoteric. As described in the summary prepared by the attorney general, Prop. 18 would provide that a special circumstance exist for killings committed "by means of lying in wait" rather than "while lying in wait."

Proponents of Prop. 18 argue that the change is needed to eradicate the last vestige of the liberal state Supreme Court once headed by the late Justice Rose Bird, who opposed the death penalty and, they say, scrupulously interpreted the law to favor the defendant.

Whatever.

When DNA testing is revealing that a fair number of men and women on death row are innocent and the state of Illinois has declared a moratorium on executions because of concern that the innocent are suffering with the guilty, Prop. 18 only further entrenches the death penalty.

Recommendation: No on 18.


Proposition 19
More Crime and Punishment

Prop. 19 would increase the penalty for killing a BART or state university patrol officer in second-degree murder cases in which the killing is deemed unintentional and even if the officer is off duty. Such convictions currently carry a sentence of 15 years to life. This initiative calls for a prison term of life without the possibility of parole.

Translation: This is yet another opportunistic measure by politicians--both this and Prop. 18 passed overwhelmingly in the Legislature and were signed by the governor--who want to look tough on crime.

Recommendation: No on 19.


Proposition 20
Lottery Money for Textbooks

Any campaign that calls itself "School books for the children"--why not "Mom and Apple Pie?"--should set off voters' BS detectors. "School books for the children" was authored by Assemblyman Tony Cardenas (D-Van Nuys), an emerging power broker in the powerful Latino Legislative Caucus. Prop. 20 is a classic example of legislating by initiative. Here's the skinny: Under existing law, at least 34 percent of lottery funds are funneled to local school districts for "instructional purposes." Prop. 20 would require that half of any increase in education revenue be reserved for textbooks and instructional materials. Let local school district officials--who are already accountable to local voters and parents--decide what is best for their schools.

Recommendation: No on 20.


Proposition 21
Juvenile Justice

To hear the backers of Prop. 21 talk, California is drowning in a tidal wave of juvenile crime. Citing Bad Seed-
style horror stories, the conservatives behind the Pete Wilson-drafted initiative want to dramatically revamp the juvenile justice system and create stiff new penalties for kids caught on the wrong side of the law.

If the initiative passes, teen criminals will face punishments that make even many anti-crime activists uneasy. Kids as young as 14 charged with certain violent crimes would be tried as adults automatically. Kids as young as 16 would go to state prison. And even some minor crimes will be severely punished: petty vandalism would become a felony.

The truth is simple. Juvenile crime is declining, and the state already puts truly dangerous young criminals away for life. We don't need to spend millions of dollars to impose harsh prison sentences on kids who could be rehabilitated.

Recommendation: No on 21.


Proposition 22
Same-Sex Marriage

Regardless of one's feelings on same-sex marriage, it doesn't make any sense to vote yes on Prop. 22. It's an unnecessary law. The "Knight Initiative" reads "only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California." However, California law already says only a man and woman can marry. Leave it to the far right--radicals like the Christian Coalition and Sen. Pete Knight--to back a needless law that allows government interference into personal lives. Proponents say that if passed Prop. 22 won't take away anyone's rights, but recent history says otherwise. In other states, similar initiatives have been used to deny basic civil rights to lesbians and gays. After passing initiatives that put limits on marriage, courts in Idaho and Pennsylvania ruled against gay and lesbian parents, barring them from adopting their partner's children and denying visitation rights. In Florida, legislators argued that same-sex couples should not receive domestic violence protection because their relationships did not fall under the state's definition of marriage. A no vote does not legalize marriage between same-sex couples. It does, however, block an attempt to single out a group of people for attack and discrimination.

Recommendation: No on 22.


Proposition 23
None of the Above

Journalists are as cynical as they come, and they typically applaud any forum for the public to voice its discontent. But Prop. 23, which would provide voters with a "none of the above" ballot option for federal, state or local candidates' races, seems more like a waste of space than a medium for political protest. Al Shugart, the Silicon Valley disk-drive pioneer, says his proposition will get people who are disillusioned with politics all fired up and scurrying to the polls to voice their frustration. But Shugart, who tried to run his dog Ernest for Congress four years ago, assumes people are passionate about their apathy.

The Greens' vocal opposition is probably overstated--they insist that a none-of-the-above ballot option will kill the chances of third-party candidates and democracy as we know it. Still, voters can already cast a write-in vote, and Prop. 23 wouldn't change the outcome of elections. Proposition 23 gets a big check in the none-of-the-above box.

Recommendation: No on 23.


Proposition 24

Removed by the Supreme Court.


Proposition 25
Campaign Donation Limits

Here we go again.

California voters have passed campaign-finance reform propositions three times since 1988. The first two initiatives were struck down by the courts. The fate of the third one, Prop. 208, will be decided by a federal judge in July.

This year Palo Alto millionaire Ron Unz and former Secretary of State Tony Miller are pushing the latest campaign-finance reform measure, Prop. 25.

Under Prop. 25, campaign donors can give no more than $3,000 to legislative candidates and $5,000 to candidates for statewide office. (Should the courts uphold Prop. 208, the 1996 initiative's lower contribution limits--$250 for legislative candidates, $500 for statewide candidates--would take precedence over the higher limits allowed by Prop. 25.) Candidates who accept voluntary contribution limits will be eligible for publicly subsidized broadcast advertising. The legislative analyst estimates this element of the measure will cost state taxpayers $55 million annually. Finally, candidates would have to list their top contributors on ballot pamphlets and disclose all donations over $1,000 on the Internet.

Too bad the authors didn't separate the disclosure requirements--which would show voters who is trying to buy influence--from donation limits. Disclosure requirements might actually hold up in court. Prop. 25 instead offers a legally dubious combo package.

Still, we think the need for some kind of reform is obvious.

By now, voters know the drill: Vote yes on campaign-finance reform and see you in court.

Recommendation: Yes on 25.


Proposition 26
School Bonds

Since the passage of Prop. 13 in 1978, California's schools have been in steady decline. Today our classrooms are among the most crowded in the nation, but Prop. 13 prohibits property-tax increases to pay for them. In addition, the law requires a two-thirds majority to pass bond measures that would improve facilities.

Prop. 26 would change the two-thirds rule to a simple majority, allowing local districts to more easily sell bonds to upgrade classrooms.

Prop. 26 is the brainchild of Santa Cruz entrepreneur and charter schools advocate Reed Hastings, who worked with public school unions and others to put the initiative on the ballot. But there's more than bond money on the campaign agenda. Prop. 26 would also require public schools to make their facilities available, at a price, to charter schools. If public schools are so overcrowded, where is this extra space coming from? The hidden agenda here is that some portion of the easier-to-approve bond money could end up building facilities that will be used by charter schools--which gives us pause.

Still, Prop. 26 is needed.

Recommendation: Yes on 26.


Proposition 27
Term-Limit Declarations

Here's a pointless exercise in futility: Force candidates for Congress--who would not be subject to term limits--to declare on their ballot statements if they support term limits. Poll-savvy politicians could simply check "yes" and then serve out the rest of their careers in Washington. Save the ink.

Recommendation: No on 27.


Proposition 28
Tobacco Tax Repeal

The proponents of Prop. 28 say that the fight over the initiative is really a choice between them--a megabuck cigarette-selling store--and activist/
actor/director Rob Reiner. Fine, we'll go with Meathead.

A year and a half ago, California voters passed Prop. 10, which imposed a new 50-cent-per-pack tax on cigarettes and earmarked the money for early childhood development and smoking prevention programs. Reiner was a major supporter of Prop. 10. Prop. 28 is a straight and simple attempt to repeal Prop. 10.

Cigarettes Cheaper!, the cigarette superstore which is sponsoring Prop. 28, uses the same arguments that California voters rejected in 1998: that Prop. 10 discriminates against cigarette smokers and that the tax money will go for another state bureaucracy and not to help children. Does anyone still believe the propaganda of the companies that sell cigarettes?

This one is easy. Children, sí; tobacco, no.

Recommendation: No on 28.


Propositions
30 and 31
Suing Insurance Companies

These ones are a little complicated, so pay attention.

Auto insurance companies are famous for delaying payment on claims, even if the claims are legitimate. California law currently allows drivers to sue their own insurance companies for unfair claims practices. But up until last year, if a driver was involved in a wreck in which another driver was at fault, the first driver could not sue the other driver's insurance company for failing to pay the claim.

Last year, the California Legislature passed a law allowing a driver to sue the other driver's insurance company, but the law was put on hold because propositions 30 and 31 were put on the ballot. Prop. 30 would affirm that law, meaning the other driver's insurance company could be sued. Metro recommends a yes vote on Prop. 30. Auto insurance companies should pay legitimate claims, and a defeat of Prop. 30 would take away a weapon to make insurance companies do so.

Here's where it gets a little complicated.

If Prop. 30 does not pass, it doesn't matter what happens to Prop. 31, because Prop. 31 won't go into effect.

But if Prop. 30 passes, allowing a driver to sue the other driver's insurance company, then Prop. 31 would limit some of the ways that the auto insurance company could be sued. For example, it would eliminate the right to sue even if the insurance company suggested binding arbitration.

Metro recommends a no vote on Prop. 31. Again, we think that auto insurance companies should pay legitimate claims. If they don't, the courts are a good way to force them to do so.

Insurance companies say that if they can be sued, they will have to raise their rates. But if they pay legitimate claims on time, then they don't have to worry about being sued, and the rates can stay the same.

Split the difference. Yes on 30; No on 31.

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Metro's Recommendations: A quick-reference guide.

Sites for the Cybervoter: Websites providing more details on candidates.

'O' No!: Airport traffic pain.

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From the February 24-March 1, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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