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Passing the Buck: California legislators and local officials have succeeded once again in handing off financial decisions about basic services and needs to Joe Voter.


March 5 ballot measures vie for money and attention at a tough time

HERE'S A BATCH of six state propositions that features something for every voter who hates propositions. There's the sweet-on-the-environment one, just in time to strengthen the state debt; there's one for the transportation revolution, if by revolution you mean California's unrealized dream of more sprawling pavement; there's the mislabeled but worthwhile proposition that pretends to limit terms but really gives pols more time in power; and we mustn't overlook the election-reform measures, both born from the problems of another state entirely.

At first, this diversity of ballot measures, while small compared to past years, seems like a lot to absorb. But overall, the propositions are simple really, because most share a common flaw. They fall in the "not our job as voters" category. One outstanding example--a ballot measure about disciplining chiropractors--is so out of the realm of the every person's knowledge base that our spineless leaders should be ashamed. Note to state Legislature: Be more legislative.

Prop 40
California Clean Water, Clean Air, Safe Neighborhood Parks, and Coastal Protection Act of 2002: NO

You're wondering, who could say no to clean water, air and parks? Sure, basically speaking--pollution bad, trees pretty. But we're talking about a lot of money. "The cost to the state would be $4.3 billion over 25 years to repay bonds ... an average cost of about $172 million per year," according to Prop. 40's legislative analysis. That cost comes at a bad time: right smack on top of California's $12.5 billion or $17.5 billion debt (depending on whose estimate you believe), which already jeopardizes public funding for expensive critical services like transportation, education and housing.

Sure, spending money is always painful for the fiscally conscious. It follows that right-wingers, like state Sen. Ray Haynes (R-Riverside) and Assemblyman Dick Dickerson (R-Redding), oppose this ballot measure. After all, "Save the money" is the Republican mating call. However, despite their political party's lack of credibility on environmental issues, this time conservatives have a solid point.

Secondly, spending for the bond money would be divvied up in an odd way, considering how supporters are selling the proposition. The Yes on 40 camp claims, "Proposition 40 will provide clean, safe drinking water; clean coastal waters; and better air quality. It will protect the most important coastal lands, and make our neighborhood parks safer and more secure."

According to Prop. 40 critics, however, almost half of the proposition's $2.6 billion would go toward buying, developing and preserving remote wilderness lands. While that effort is probably a good idea, it doesn't sound like the most direct route to sparkling tap water and safe swing sets. Ultimately, deciding on Prop. 40 is a matter of timing and priorities. Preserving the environment is crucial. But $2.6 billion is too much money to give environmentalists when all the big causes are extra needy in our tender economy.

Prop 41
Voting Modernization Bond Act of 2002: YES

Arguments for this measure are a bit disingenuous. Their crux lies with George W. Bush's heist of the presidency via bad chads in the Sunshine State. But we need to face facts. We're never getting that election back. Also, it's somewhat off-putting that Sequoia Pacific Voting Equipment Inc. is a $100,000 voice of support behind the voting equipment proposition.

Nevertheless, California's voting system is old and needs fixing, according to voting-system experts. (One House Judiciary Committee report found that 2 percent of California votes for president in 2000 were undercounted.) While our punch cards are currently legal, said fixing must happen by a federally set 2004 deadline.

Prop. 41 would let the state raise money by selling $200 million in general-obligation bonds for a matching fund to help counties pay for chad-free voting systems. Counties would get $3 for every $1 they put into buying electronic ATM-like touch-screen or optical-scan machines and training voting workers to use them.

Currently, nine California counties, including Santa Clara, use the passé punch cards to document the political wishes of more than half the state's voters. Replacing the old system with Prop. 41 bonds would cost the state at least $255 million over 10 years. But the cost to replace voting machines probably isn't going to get any cheaper. Voters should take advantage of the state and potentially federal matching funds and get the needed update over with.

Prop 42
Transportation Funding: NO

Prop. 42 supporters make it sound simple. Gas tax comes from transportation, so it should go back into transportation costs, they say. Seems reasonable. But Prop. 42's logic is impaired. To earmark gas tax for cars only is shortsighted and shallow. People don't buy and use gas in a vacuum. (Yikes, what a thought!) Cars pollute the air, cause health problems and necessitate a lot of international mucking about to keep their tanks full.

The point is that if gas tax goes to mitigating the effects of gas on society, it needs to circulate beyond the freeways. Currently, the money goes into the general fund and can be used for various things, including transportation, education and social services.

The stated purpose of this proposition is to create a dedicated cash source for transportation projects, which, it's true, are often underfunded. The bigger picture, though, is supposed to be a commitment to solving the state's infamous traffic problems, namely gridlock.

But the proposition's war plan is flawed. For one thing, the measure prescribes a rigid and questionable percentage breakdown for determining which traffic fixes get the bucks. The projected revenue, about $1.4 billion a year, would be split up in the following way: 40 percent to the state's capital investment projects, 40 percent to paving streets and fixing city and county roads, and 20 percent to public transportation (not much of a comparative commitment to reducing traffic).

What's most questionable about Prop. 42 is its overbearing grip on future public funds. The measure would wait six years for the upcoming Transportation Congestion Relief Program to expire before making its permanent mark. The TCRP, enacted by the Legislature in 2000, temporarily earmarks gas taxes for transportation from 2003 to 2008. Prop. 42 would keep those revenues (which are supposed to revert back to the general fund) from ever being freed up to go toward other underfunded public services. It's thinkable that transportation is the best use of gas money. But it's also arguably not the best use. And who knows where the state's cash should go in 2008?

Even the spokesperson for the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, which endorsed this measure and would make some money from it, failed to give a strong recommendation for Prop. 42. "I don't think we would be able to speculate on whether [Prop. 42's funding] breakdown would accurately reflect the need in 2008," VTA's Grace Lynch noted.

Prop 43
Right to Have Vote Counted: NO

This proposed amendment to the state constitution is just annoying. Even women have the right to vote in this century. The argument for this proposition is that nowhere in California's constitution does it explicitly spell out every individual's right to have his or her vote counted. Again, like 41, this proposition is a reaction to the Florida voting fiasco of 2000. Unlike 41, it doesn't really do anything useful. What's scary about this proposition is that it could open the floodgates for endless contesting of election results. It's a waste of voter attention. If the election process needs to be reformed, we've got legislators whose job it is to do that.

Prop 44
Insurance Fraud: NO

This proposition is an excellent example of what's terribly wrong with the initiative process. Chiropractors should not be on the ballot. Because of someone's bad idea of an initiative in 1922, all legislative changes to oversight of chiropractors have to go through voters. What do we know about chiropractors?

Well, here's a little lesson. Chiropractors don't automatically lose their licenses to crack backs for committing insurance fraud. Prop. 44 would change that. If this measure passes, insurance-thieving chiropractors would join regular doctors in losing their licenses on the second offense. Punishing doubly fraudulent chiropractors would no longer be up to the whim of the Chiropractic Board of Examiners, which doesn't take the offense seriously enough, according to a representative of state Sen. Jackie Speier (D-San Mateo), the proposition's author.

Prop. 44 supporters insist that insurance fraud is a very serious problem. But, when asked, they were unable to provide evidence that license revocation is an effective deterrent for insurance fraud. The state's Office of Consumer Affairs, which oversees physicians, doesn't know how effective the penalty is for doctors. We don't need Prop. 44. What we need is an initiative that returns disciplinary control over sinister chiropractors to the Legislature.

Prop 45
Legislative Term Limits. Local Voter Petitions: YES

California got its term limits because SoCal Republicans wanted to end powerful San Francisco Demo Willie Brown's three-decade run on the state Assembly. So they passed Prop. 140 by a slim majority in 1990 and ousted Brown in 1994. That was a backhanded move that violated San Francisco voters' right to statewide representation as they see fit. Now, Democrats are fighting back, albeit in a similarly slimy way, with the deceptive Prop. 45.

In the voter guide's opening argument on the pro side, Prop. 45 purports to "protect term limits." That's a lie. Actually, Prop. 45 gives members of the state Senate and Assembly more time in office. Senators get four more years past their current eight-year limit; assemblymembers get another four tacked onto their six--if 20 percent of their districts' voters sign a petition to keep them in their seats.

Despite the Prop. 45 camp's ass-backward wording, the initiative's aim to return experience to Sacramento is right on (regardless of whether voters need to be tricked to do the right thing). Term limits are problematic because they encourage stepping-stone politics and prevent good legislative officials from digging into the molasseslike process of passing legislation.

As Washington Post Columnist David Broder wrote in 1994, "Legislatures ... need people with enough experience and guts to provide leadership that looks beyond the political pressures and public resentments of the moment." Besides, the election process already has built-in term limits: We vote.

Oh, Bondage!

Measures E, F and G
School Bonds: YES, YES, YES

This year could easily be called the year of the school bond, as the begging of local school districts is hitting a record high. San Jose Unified School District wants working toilets, asbestos-free buildings and permanent classrooms. So, they come running to taxpayers for handouts. We say, You want money? Invest in the stock market! Kidding.

If there were a word stronger than "hell-yes" to support local school bond measures E, F and G, we'd use it. Measure E would bring West Valley Mission Community College District nearly $269 million for new and improved classrooms, lighting and other basics. Measure F would give San Jose Unified a ridiculously needed leg up for $429 million. And Measure G would help fix the East Side Union High School District's leaky roofs, old classrooms and computer system with a $298 million infusion.

Since voters approved Prop. 39 in 2000, which returned school bond decisions closer to majority rule instead of the two-thirds requirement the state has been lugging around since Prop. 13, these bonds actually stand a chance of passing. Ignoring the unreasonable grumbling from tax-phobic Libertarians and stingy homeowners lobbying against this year's school bonds (some of whom are still paying pre-Prop. 13 taxes), there is no acceptable excuse to evade the public good by not coughing up property taxes to support schools and, by extension, the future brains of society.

This Golden State's supposed to get another 300,000 public schoolers in the next five years. We need at least $22 billion for building and upkeep funding, according to the state education department's facility and planning figures. The Legislature is poised to put up state matching funds, and bond interest rates are at an attractive low right now. Carpe diem; Let's get it on!

O No!

Measure O
Fire, police and 911: NO

Measure O would raise property taxes to put $159 million toward the city's police and fire services. Your sleepless Metro Election Squad can't get past the fact that San Jose is already one of the safest big cities in the nation, and has some of the highest property taxes to go with it.

Supporters say that police and fire response times are slipping as the city grows, particularly in the south and the west. Well, funny thing. This is what happens when you keep bringing more people into the valley. Don't get us wrong: we're all for appropriate levels of police and fire services. But our civic leaders' attempt to wring extra dollars from the voters for something as basic as safety is akin to taking out a second mortgage on your house to buy hazard insurance.

First things first, San Jose. Whatever happened to the concept of the general fund anyway? Unfortunately, this measure (which was filed with the county's Registrar of Voters in December) will probably get some well-meaning, but misguided, votes out of the newfound police and fire consciousness that has permeated the nation since Sept. 11. That bugs us, as do the depressing state budget cuts for schools that lurk in the shadow of this $159 million handout to a financially fat city that wants to spend seemingly limitless dollars on a city hall for its elected officials. No is the way to go on O.

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From the February 28-March 6, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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