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Indecent Propositions

The hidden agendas behind this year's initiatives

By Richard von Busack and Michael Mechanic

The ballot initiative process, familiar to longtime Californians, was originally a progressive reform designed to empower the state's citizens. Over the years, though, it's become more of a top-down process than a citizen's recourse against bad government. These days, if you want to rewrite California law to enhance your economic interest, you make up a name (Citizens for Cleaner Wallets) and hire some starvelings to collect signatures for a quarter a pop in front of the supermarket. Once you're on the ballot you bolster your cause with as much advertising as possible. The fighting has been fast and furious. Somewhere in the campaigns lies the truth; unfortunately, it's not in the 30-second spots.

Proposition 192: If the Retrofit Fits

Should California's taxpayers have to foot the bill to earthquake-proof toll bridges in the Bay Area? Nearly a third of the $2 billion in bonds authorized by Proposition 192 would be used for that purpose. Seismic retrofitting already is a priority for the $2.4 billion California motorists pay each year in gas taxes. Proposition 192 would substitute expensive debt financing from the state's general fund for the gas taxes, then divert those funds for road work. And in case there's any doubt about whose bread's going to get buttered, big contractors and heavy equipment manufacturers are expected to pony up at least $2 million to win passage of the proposition.

Proposition 193: Grandma's House

This ballot initiative would amend the state's constitution to allow some grandchildren to inherit real estate property from their grandparents--only if the parents are both deceased--without having to pay the higher property taxes brought on by a reappraisal of the property's market value. Such an exemption already exists for children inheriting or buying property from their parents. Although schools, counties, cities and special districts would lose property taxes because of the initiative, the losses would amount to only $1 million annually, according to the Legislative Analyst.

Proposition 194: Unemployment Bennies for Ex-Cons

This proposal would prohibit ex-cons from collecting unemployment benefits based on work performed for private business in the so-called Joint Venture Program during their incarcerations. While a crime-spooked public might be naturally inclined against extending government benefits to criminals, the issue bears more consideration. Aside from providing restitution to victims and reimbursement to the state for incarceration costs, the program is a relatively painless way for society to finance the transition of ex-cons toward becoming productive members of society.

Propositions 193-196:
Special Circumstances

Proposition 195 would make a murder committed during a carjacking a "special circumstance" punishable by death or by life without possibility of parole. It would do the same in cases of murder of a juror who was assigned to a case involving the murderer--an exceedingly rare occurrence. Proposition 196 would make murder by drive-by shooting punishable by death or life without possibility of parole. These propositions will no doubt result in the executions of a disproportionate number of ethnic and racial minorities, while raising costs to taxpayers. Under the current criminal justice system, it's more costly to execute a prisoner than to incarcerate him for life.

Proposition 197: The Lion Hunters

This measure would nullify the California Wildlife Protection Act of 1990 by allowing the state's mountain lions to be hunted once again. Supporters say hunting of the animals must be allowed because they're threatening the health and safety of the state's humans. Animal-rights activists and other opponents say the measure is primarily the work of trophy hunters, who want lion heads to hang in their dens. If you follow the money, it appears they're right. The National Rifle Association, which refers to the sport as "wildlife management," has kicked in $100,000 to pass the law.

Proposition 198: Party On

This proposition allows voters to vote across party lines during primary elections. One negative effect, presumably, is that it would allow party members whose candidate is running uncontested to spoil the opposing party's solidarity. For example, Democrats in the current presidential primary could mess up Dole by voting for Buchanan. Smaller third parties are against 198 because they are afraid they will lose their base of support in the primaries. An open primary, however, would allow people to vote for a candidate of one party for president and one of another party for state Senate, thus allowing voters a bigger say in the democratic process. Both sides agree that Proposition 198 would get more voters involved.

Proposition 199:
Mobile Home Rents

Local response to the Mobile Home Rent Control Restriction and Mobile Home Rental Assistance Initiative Statute was the subject of a Feb. 22 Metro cover story. The initiative removes individual cities' rent control on mobile home spaces, in return for providing a subsidy to the low-income renters. But there's a caveat. Only 10 percent of a mobilehome park population--not more, and sometimes less--would be eligible for a 10 percent rent reduction. But because of the vanquished local rent control, this subsidy would do little to undercut the significantly higher rents a tenant would pay as time goes by. Proponents of 199 cite its ability to "cut red tape and reduce government interference in the private sector." Nice try.

Propositions 200-202:
The Terrible Two Hundreds

The three propositions sponsored by the Alliance to Revitalize California are aimed at reforming the tort system: the part of the law that helps you find a criminal's checkbook once convicted of damage to a person and/or property. But Kelly Hayes-Raitt, campaign manager of Citizens Against Phony Initiatives, a consortium of anti Proposition 200-202 groups which includes the NAACP, the Consumer's Union (publishers of Consumer's Reports) and the AFL-CIO, calls supporters "a group of Silicon Valley businesses and CEOs who have themselves been sued by their shareholders for stock manipulation, insider trading, and consumer fraud." She says all three of the propositions are represented by the group because their first one, Proposition 201, was too boring, so they book-ended it with two other tort-reform propositions. "If there's one thing Californians know about, it's auto insurance," she said, referring to 200. "They needed all three to to create an attention-getting campaign, and they needed lawyers as a target. To win in a political campaign, you need a winning enemy."

Proposition 200 would require insurers to pay benefits regardless of who is at fault in most motor vehicle accidents, in effect banning lawsuits against negligent or reckless drivers. Promised is a rate reduction, and low-cost insurance for everyone. It claims to limit torts caused by reckless driving, because the only way you can get a settlement out of another driver who hurts you is if he's convicted--not just arrested--for drunk driving, if he's fleeing a felony, or if he's hauling toxic waste. (Presumably there's no indemnity if you're turned into a superhero by the toxic waste spilling on you.)

The problem with Proposition 200 is that it forces two different types of accidents under the same umbrella: the stupid parking lot fender-bender that raises your rates, and the horrible automotive catastrophe that leaves you in court suing for pain, suffering and funeral costs. Overall it's a shoddily written piece of insurance legislation, which is unlikely to bring down premiums and will most likely reap a windfall for insurers.

Proposition 201: Land of Torts

The Wall Street Journal has heralded 201 as the "Tort Lawyer's Unemployment Act." Opponents argue that 201 protects a particular class of person whom we too often don't think of in our nightly prayers: the violator of the security and exchange laws. This proposition would discourage lawsuits by tagging plaintiffs and their attorneys in class action shareholder lawsuits for the corporation's defense costs if the shareholders don't win the suit.

To be sure, California companies can't help but feel pestered by lawyers going after a quick settlement on behalf of investors who lost money on stocks they claim they bought as the result of fraudulent claims by the company's brass. This is a particularly Californian pastime, it would seem. Outside the state, only about 1 percent of stockholders end up suing their companies, but more than half of the valley's public companies have faced such suits. Obviously not all of these lawsuit targets are run by criminals, 201's boosters say.

Plaintiffs would be required to post a bond to cover the corporation's legal costs if they lose. The bond requirement is waived if five percent of a company's shareholders are aggravated enough to join the suit, a figure consumer advocates say is an unreasonable threshhold.

Proposition 202:
No Lawyer Jokes, Please

Proposition 202 is another comfort to lawsuit-weary Silicon Valley millionaires, as well as their customers, who indirectly pay their legal expenses. It would require the plaintiff's attorneys in tort cases to demand a settlement price and allow the defendant to make a counteroffer. Proposition 202 would limit the lawyer's fee to 15 percent of that counteroffer, or if it is rejected, larger fees could only be collected on amounts in excess of the counteroffer. The large contingency fees (often one-third of the settlement) earned by plaintiff's attorneys in personal injury and similar types of lawsuits sometimes incentivize lawyers to take weak or frivolous cases, which are frequently settled when it's cheaper to pay off litigants than tough out a prolonged court battle. By limiting the lawyers' cut, this proposition will help assure that lawsuits are only filed when they have considerable merit. The downside is that fewer lawyers will accept legitimate cases from clients who can't afford up-front fees, as not every barrister can afford to carry the costs and risks of taking on a major corporation.

Proposition 203:
True to Your Schools

This proposition gives the state authority to sell $3 billion in bonds to finance desperately needed capital improvements in public schools and universities. Leaking ceilings, dangerous bleachers, rotting floors, bricks falling from buildings--the infrastructure of our educational system is literally falling apart. The UC system has a deferred maintenance backlog expected to reach nearly $1 billion by the year 2000 as the state pumps tens of billions of dollars into prison building. Might as well. If California can't even take proper care of the educational institutions it so proudly built up during the 1960s, those prisons will definitely be needed.

For the complete text of the Legislative Analyst's Office Analyses of Measures on the March 26, 1996 Primary Election Ballot, take a look at their web page.

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From the Mar. 21-27, 1996 issue of Metro

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