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Indecent Propositions

[whitespace] In the 1998 election, the real contest is John Q. Public vs. the 'intiative industry'

THIS YEAR, there are initiatives on the ballot that regulate minutiae such as how educators should teach non-English-speaking students, how government contracts should be bid and how the courts should be run. Once, these were decisions we left to professionals--the teachers in the field, administrators and legal experts. No longer.

In his new book, Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's Future, Peter Schrag points out that ballot initiatives have steadily chipped away at the power of the Legislature, county boards of supervisors, school boards, city councils and courts. Ballot initiatives have limited elected officials' terms in office, capped property-tax assessments, abolished affirmative action in public education and mandated three-strikes sentencing.

The irony is that in the name of democracy, ballot initiatives usurp power from the people we elect to look at the whole system and shape policy for the state.

If the ballot initiative was a response to a feeling that elected officials did not carry out the will of the people, the proliferation of initiatives has thrown power to an initiative industry that runs "Astroturf" campaigns that fake grassroots support, pays for signatures and often gives us poorly written, ill-conceived and unworkable laws. With this in mind, Metro has evaluated the initiatives on the ballot this June and recommended a yes vote on only two, Prop. 219 and 220. Prop. 219 at least prevents initiative-framers from penalizing voters who disagree with their propositions, and 220 uses the initiative process in the way it was meant.


Proposition 220

This proposition would disintegrate the two-tiered trial court system. And despite our protests, this is one of the few cases where a proposition is necessary because it requires an amendment to the state constitution. At present, municipal court judges handle the small stuff--misdemeanors, civil suits involving less than $20,000 and penny-ante infractions. Superior court judges handle felonies, family law and big-bucks civil suits. If Prop. 220 passes, it would consolidate the two courts within a county as long as the merger is approved by the majority of that county's muni and superior court judges. The merger would theoretically break up the logjam of backed-up cases in courts by keeping the judges' dockets full and the courtrooms occupied. The fiscal effect is unknown at this point, but anything that keeps those folks busy earning their $90,000-plus salary a year is OK in our book.
Recommendation: Yes on 220.


Proposition 221

Prop. 221 would shift the authority for disciplining the state's court commissioners and referees, the so-called subordinate judicial officers who serve as judges for such things as traffic cases and some family and small-claims matters. Right now, the presiding judge of each local court appoints them and then handles any disciplinary proceedings against them. Prop. 221 would change the law so that the state's Commission on Judicial Performance would be responsible. The commission presently has disciplinary authority over the state's judges.

This idea was so popular in the state Legislature (they supported it by a combined 111-1 vote) that one wonders why they didn't just pass it into law themselves. The answer comes with the name of one of the prop's chief supporters: State Senate Judiciary Committee vice chairman Tim Leslie, who happens to be running for lieutenant governor. Maybe Tim thought that the "Leslie Initiative" would give him some free publicity. We hope not. This seems like another misuse of the initiative process.

Proponents say that because the CJP does not presently discipline commissioners and referees, we are left with such "horror" stories as commissioners awarding child custody to pedophiles and drug abusers. But when is the last time you ever, ever, heard of the CJP disciplining any of the judges over which it does have authority?
Recommendation: No on 221.


Proposition 222

Lock the door and throw away the key. This is the basic tenet of Proposition 222, which promises to wipe out the criminal justice provision that allows second-degree murderers, whose crime is not premeditated, to trim off part of their 15- to 25-year sentences for hard work and good behavior. The proposition also cracks down on cop-killers, raising the sentence for second-degree murder of a police officer, now 25 years to life, up to life without parole. California Assemblyman Rod Pacheco, the measure's sponsor, says 222 will sew shut a loophole that has allowed murderers to "manipulate the work-credit system" and reduce their sentences. Duh--that's the whole idea of the work-credit system. This ballot measure boils down to a fundamental difference in thinking about prisoners. Its supporters argue that murderers should serve the maximum sentence with no parole--no matter what. Opponents of the measure believe that criminals have the potential for rehabilitation and should be given the opportunity to earn for themselves a second chance, and we believe they're right.
Recommendation: No on 222.


Proposition 223

Proposition 223 is another one of those chameleon ballot measures that sends out one message and delivers an opposite result. A yes vote means schools get less money. Prop. 223 claims it will trim down bureaucracies at California schools by limiting the dollars a district can spend on administration. Dubbed the "95/5" initiative, it allows school districts to spend only 5 percent of their total state and federal funds on administration. The remaining 95 percent, the prop says, will be reserved exclusively for the classrooms.

But since someone still needs to buy cafeteria food, repair buses and send out teachers' paychecks, this proposition will only force districts to restructure their finances.

The proposition would also create additional administrative tasks. First, someone will have to document and classify all of the district's services as either the 95 percent that supports instruction or the 5 percent that is administrative. Then, districts will need to creatively refinance in order to save important services. These tasks, of course, will fall under the 5 percent, creating one more unneeded administrative cost.

"The teacher in front of the classroom is something we're all focused on, but that doesn't mean they don't need services that support them, whether it be janitorial or a curriculum director," says Maureen Munroe, spokeswoman for San Jose Unified School District. "Prop. 223 would just create yet another layer of accounting and reporting."
Recommendation: No on 223.


Proposition 224

Any time the California Labor Federation and the California Republican Party team up against a mutual foe, chances are good the opponent is a creature of curious dimensions.

Prop. 224, sponsored by the state's civil engineers' union, would work this way: Any time the state needed to build a road or a dam or anything else costing more than $50,000, interested companies and the state itself would submit estimates to the state controller to see who could do it cheapest (currently the state picks firms, then discusses money).

The first catch is that whereas private companies would have to list all expenses, including the state's project-monitoring costs, the state would only have to list direct costs such as materials, the logic being that costs such as administration are already in place independent of particular projects.

The second catch is that the controller's office would swell like a diseased gland as hundreds of projects come through for approval each year. Opponents have hinted darkly at the controller becoming a "contract czar." And just imagine the bureaucratic backlog.

Opponents of 224 say it's a rigged system that discourages competitive bidding and would unfairly award most contracts to the state, taking jobs from thousands of unionized construction workers to the benefit of a select group of state employees.

And didn't we elect someone to handle this sort of thing, anyway?
Recommendation: No on 224.


Proposition 225

There is one really bad thing about Prop. 225, and it has nothing to do with term limits. First off, let's get one thing straight. Prop. 225 is not a direct vote on congressional term limits. That has already been voted on by Californians, and the resulting law has already been declared unconstitutional by the courts. Now, term-limit supporters are attempting to pass a U.S. constitutional amendment.

Prop. 225 would make support of such an amendment the official position of the state of California; it would require all state and federal legislators from California to work to pass the amendment; and it would require that ballots identify in writing any candidates who refuse to support such a term-limit amendment.

Worse yet: If passed, the proposition would allow for all sorts of "ballot position statements" on all sorts of issues. Supporters of both sides of the abortion issue might want "yes or no" statements on this question from candidates put on the ballot. And what about the death penalty? Or environmental protection vs. economic development? Or affirmative action? Once you open up the door for one issue, you pretty much have to open up the door for all. Bad idea.
Recommendation: No on 225.


Proposition 226

Drafted by anti-union conservatives, Prop. 226 has been disingenuously represented as an assist to working men and women who have no say over where their union dues go. Its architects were even calling it the "paycheck protection" act for a while.

But Prop. 226, which would require all employees to give permission to their labor unions before their dues could be used for political activities, is a thinly veiled attempt to reduce union political clout while no similar laws will restrict employer trade groups. For one thing, union members elect their officers. If they don't like their officers' choices, members can vote them out. For another, California law already allows union members to request that their dues not be used for political purposes.

Prop. 226, designed to become law July 1, would seriously impede unions' abilities to participate in California's November elections, since officials would be rushing to collect a form that hasn't even been developed yet. Part of an extended family of similar initiatives that have already passed in Washington and Wyoming, 226 represents a national effort to politically neuter unions--and California is a key state.
Recommendation: No on 226.


Proposition 227

Drafted by Palo Alto businessman Ron Unz, Prop. 227, or the "English for the Children" initiative, proposes to end bilingual education statewide when school starts this fall. Unz believes that students are best served in classes where English is spoken, and English only.

Instead of the current system, whereby students can be taught in their native language and gradually eased into English-only classes, the Unz initiative would give students a year to get up to speed. After that, they would be placed in regular classes without additional help.

Proponents, which include Gov. Pete Wilson, say that parents will be able to request waivers allowing their children to stay in bilingual classes. But finding a class will be difficult--the initiative allows for one only if 20 students at the same school and at the same grade level have a need for bilingual instruction.

Every candidate for governor has opposed Prop. 227, including Republican Attorney General Dan Lungren. And while educators agree that some overhaul of the bilingual system is necessary, they believe that if Prop. 227 passes, the state will be left with an over-regulated system that forces children into a rigid English-only environment before they are ready. This, they say, could lead to continuing underachievement for non-native speakers on tests.

This initiative has more politics in mind than the interests of children. Education should not be regulated by initiative but reformed by educational professionals who are on the front lines educating the state's children.
Recommendation: No on 227.

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From the May 28-June 3, 1998 issue of Metro.

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