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The Fine Print

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Peter Max

A voter's guide to the state's plethora of propositions

THE VOTER INITIATIVE PROCESS was started with the best of democratic intentions, but invariably ends up being a cornucopia of special interests. This year is no exception, with 11 wordsmithed nuggets leading to questionable public good. Here is Metro's deconstruction of the state propositions, the players behind them and the best way to vote.

Proposition 1:
Property tax breaks for toxic sites

This tidily written prop. would direct the legislature to preserve the low, pre-Proposition 13 tax rates of property owners who have to rebuild structures or move because of toxic contamination on their site. Conservative Republican Assemblylman Curt Pringle, who authored this proposed constitutional amendment, makes a somewhat annoying case for "innocent homeowners" who are victims of "environmental disasters," without the slightest mention that this little tax break would apply to troubled corporate property owners as well. It's hard for many in the younger generation to muster a droplet of sympathy for pre-Prop. 13 taxpayers, especially when real estate values are skyrocketing, local schools are in the doldrums and families are cramming into condos and apartments. On the positive side, the list of requirements to qualify for this break is fairly stringent and would exclude, for example, anyone who made the toxic mess themselves or bought the property knowing it was contaminated. The fiscal impact is less than $1 million. No one even bothered to submit an opposing argument in the voter pamphlet. Unless you just can't stand the idea of anyone paying pre-Prop. 13 taxes, it's probably a good idea to inspire toxic cleanup without any more penalties than there already are.

Recommendation: Yes on Prop. 1.

Proposition 1A:
Statewide school bonds

This proposition would authorize the sale of $9.2 billion in state bonds to pay for a variety of projects for all levels of California's public schools, from elementary through the University of California system. Some $6.7 million would be dedicated to K-12 facilities, and the remaining $2.5 billion would go to higher education.

Prop. 1A purports to reduce class size by building more classrooms, modernizing existing facilities, upgrading classroom computers, retrofitting buildings to make them earthquake-safe and expanding higher education facilities.

Opponents argue that the state can't be trusted to spend the money wisely. Such knee-jerk arguments, along with the lingering legacy of Prop. 13, have contributed to the degeneration of the public education system to the point where California schools are now the most overcrowded in the country and have one of the worst student-to-computer ratios. But the claim by supporters that Prop. 1A will not result in higher taxes is hard to fathom. Six hundred million dollars a year in debt service is hard to disguise, even in a budget as big as California's. Opponents are also right that bonds, with the interest they carry, are an expensive way to pay for anything.

Prop. 1A is supported by the California Taxpayers' Association and the teachers unions, which should tell you something. One reason is that the statewide approach to bonding for educational improvements relieves local property taxpayers from shouldering the burden.

The cheaper and more honest method would be to raise taxes and pay as you go, and we all know what the chances are of that happening: zero. This way, investors profit on the bonds, the schools get healthy and property taxpayers don't feel the sting.

Recommendation: Yes on Prop. 1A.

Proposition 2:
Transportation funds

The governor and Legislature regularly raid state gas-tax and vehicle-fee money, earmarked for use on highways and public transportation, to help bail out the general fund. Prop. 2 would require any funds borrowed from the fund to be repaid within the same fiscal year unless the governor declares a monetary emergency or the general fund has dropped from the year before.

Environmentalists like Prop. 2 because it protects the budgets of important public transit projects. The highway lobby likes it because it does the same thing for work on public roads and highways. There is virtually no organized opposition to Prop. 2.

Though the "monetary emergency" loophole is big enough to drive a big rig through, Prop. 2 would at least ensure that gas-tax money and motor vehicle fees get spent on the purposes for which they were intended. Unless you don't believe tax sources should be dedicated to specific spending purposes ...

Recommendation: Yes on Prop. 2.

Proposition 3:
Partisan presidential primaries

In March, 1996, California voters passed Prop. 198, which created an "open" primary system and allowed voters of any or no party affiliation to vote in the primary of any political party. The law did not apply to voting in general elections.

There's only one problem: The parties themselves are not bound to honor the results. As a consequence, delegations to national party conventions selected on the basis of open primary results risk not being seated, virtually cutting out California voters from the nomination process--the opposite of what Prop. 198 intended.

Opponents point out that 24 states have some version of the open primary. But these are often states where either one party is prohibitively dominant over the other or there exists an alternative nomination system in parallel with the primary, such as the caucus system.

Opponents also point out that the parties could change their rules to accommodate California, or entertain a motion from the floor during a convention to seat the California delegation. It is hard to imagine either party excluding the delegation from the largest state in the nation, no matter how it was selected.

But party affiliation is still a choice, and the parties have every right to determine the process by which their nomination is conferred. People who choose not to affiliate with one of the two major parties should also not expect to be allowed to participate in that party's nomination process.

Prop. 3 would re-establish this principle in primaries. By prohibiting crossover voting, it would restore some level of integrity to the nomination process.

Recommendation: Yes on Prop. 3.

Proposition 4:
Ban on steel-jaw leghold traps

This initiative outlaws all traps that grip an animal's body and specifically targets the steel-jaw leghold trap. It also bans the trade in fur from animals trapped with any of these devices and prohibits poisons that are used most often by ranchers to kill off coyotes.

Although this measure would seem to be an easy checkmark for both the animal-rights contingent and environmentalists, it has managed to split them into opposing camps. Apparently, some animal protectors favor these traps for snagging predators of endangered species. An example exists locally, where during the 1980s, an introduced red fox population began decimating the endangered California clapper rail, reducing the population from 1,500 to 600.

The language of the proposition, however, explicitly allows the state an exception if it needs one to use traps for predator and disease control. It allows "common rat and mouse traps," despite the claims of the opponents.

Prop. 5 is supported by the Sierra Club, the SPCA and the national Humane Society--hardly radical animal-rights organizations or eco-thugs who would deny the importance of protecting California's endangered wildlife. Banning for-profit trapping and trapping for sport would go far in curbing the suffering of many wild animals. Surely those trying to protect endangered species can get an exemption for their good cause without enabling the fur industry to continue its inhumane practices.

Recommendation: Yes on Prop. 4.

Proposition 5:
Indian gaming

The contentious debate over Indian gaming boils down to one question: Should tribes be able to run casinos as sovereign entities? Nevada casino owners, unions and a couple of conservative churches oppose the measure, which they say will allow Indian gaming to grow unchecked as it fosters unregulated employment practices. That's not true. If Prop. 5 passes, the casinos will be held to federal employment, health and safety standards under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. They will not be allowed to change the kind of gaming they already have (read: still no blackjack games against the house--parimutuel-style video slots, card games and races only). The tribes will not, on the other hand, have to give up the 14,000 video slot machines currently in operation which Gov. Wilson has targeted as illegal in California--and which started the whole mess.

Generating $1.5 billion annually, gaming is a major source of income on the reservations. Prop. 5 would share the profits with nongaming tribes and contribute a portion of profits to state emergency funds.

Gambling isn't the noblest cash cow, but it's surely one of the richest, and clean industries aren't exactly lining up to build on reservations. If tribal leaders see fit to run big casinos, let them do it the way they want to. It's not the worst thing that could happen.

Recommendation: Yes on Prop. 5.

Proposition 6:
Banning the sale of horse meat for human consumption

Although the opposition's "Just Say NEIGH!" campaign arouses appreciation for a good pun, there's good reason to support this proposition, even among voters who aren't militant vegetarians. Prop. 6 is about cultural esthetics. Not only are horses endowed with cultural significance (even if Wild West mythology is currently demodé), but most people consider them more akin to pets than livestock. Sure, an abhorrence to horse meat is culture-specific and sentimental, but that's really all a heritage is: a system of sentimental stories and symbols. And everybody needs one.

Opponents note that horses will still be slaughtered for dog food anyway, which makes getting sanctimonious about Prop. 6 hypocritical. Touché. But the dominant two-legged species in California has more food to choose from than almost anyone on Earth. Do we need another flavor of meat to stuff down our gullets? We should be moving in the direction of eating lower on the food chain, not higher. Let's leave the symbol of the American West out of the casserole.

Recommendation: Yes on Prop. 6.

Proposition 7:
Air quality improvement tax credits

This proposition works on the cynical--yet realistic--theory that folks won't do the right thing unless there's something in it for them. For example, replacing or retrofitting heavily polluting trucks and buses with cleaner-burning engines. Rather than doing it to improve the air we--and future generations--breathe, this prop would make it so transportation companies can do it for tax credits! This would shrink tax revenues for California by as much as $100 million a year, according to the state's legislative analyst, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out who gets the bigger tax break--you with your leaf-blower or International Harvester. A well-intentioned idea, but too expensive. Better to step up enforcement and fine the continuing offenders, thereby adding money to the state's coffers.

Recommendation: No on Prop. 7.

Prop. 8:
Public schools grab bag

Although it has some good and bad ideas for education, Prop. 8 is a classic example of the initiative process gone haywire. It is a last-ditch attempt by Gov. Wilson to circumvent the legislative process and enact a hodgepodge of school reforms before he leaves office. The bad ideas in Prop. 8 should be discarded entirely; the good ones should be pursued through the legislative process. First the bad: Prop. 8 would establish a $60 million statewide bureaucracy headed by an almost unaccountable "Chief Inspector of Public Schools" appointed by the governor to a 10-year term. It would also mandate school-site "councils" that would duplicate the work of the local school district, the PTA and the elected school board. The good ideas include teacher competency testing, giving principals the power to hire and fire teachers based on performance, funding for class-size reduction and mandatory expulsion for drugs. But in this case, the initiative process is clearly the wrong way to achieve these goals. The mandated funding for class-size reduction is budgeting at the ballot box and ties the hands of the Legislature in future budgets. And the proposition is redundant because students caught with drugs can already be expelled. This proposition attempts to be a magic bullet to fix California's education ills. Clearly, it misses the mark.

Recommendation: No on Prop. 8.

Proposition 9:
Electric utilities assessments and bonds

Although this measure has many arms, the big one waving to voters this election year bears dollar signs. Vote yes on Prop. 9, supporters say, and watch 20 percent be slashed from every person's electricity bill. When pressed, however, Prop. 9 folks admit that if victorious, the measure will celebrate for two minutes and then walk straight to the courthouse, where PG&E's attorneys will attack it as illegal. And as the men in suits hash it out, consumers will continue paying bills without their promised 20 percent savings.

Saving money is not the reason to vote for Prop. 9. The reason to vote yes is to send the message that Californians no longer want dangerous and wasteful nuclear power plants. Currently, consumers pay an extra 20 percent on their electric bill each month to pay off power plants built by the three largest utilities when the state was trying to lessen its dependence on fossil fuel. Prop. 9 argues that with today's open energy market and renewable-power options, consumers shouldn't be forced to fund plants that pollute the environment. But when California legislators voted to restructure the electricity market, opponents of Prop. 9 say, paying off the power plants was part of the deal. Well it shouldn't have been, say the pro-9 folks.

Although consumers will continue paying off the plants if the measure sits in court, voting yes on Prop. 9 will tell legislators and utilities that voters oppose nuclear power and that they oppose passing cash to the three largest utilities.

This measure is supported by the Sierra Club, the League of Women Voters and Consumers Union.

Recommendation: Yes on Prop. 9.

Proposition 10:
Cigarette tax for early childhood education

There are some serious problems with this initiative, which places a 50-cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes to pay for early childhood development programs. But the flood of no-strings-attached funding it provides to currently underfunded programs simply outweighs the problems.

If enacted, this proposition will bring in $700 million a year for early childhood development programs, intended for children from birth to age 5. Though new studies show how important the first few years of a child's life are, scant government funding has been allocated to programs for toddlers.

Under the proposition, the guidelines for funding are broad, leaving counties with total freedom in how they spend the money. Santa Clara County, which is just completing a comprehensive plan for early childhood development, can use the estimated $27 million to expand existing programs, create new ones and bring in millions in federal matching grants--an unimagined windfall for children's health.

Tobacco companies opposing Proposition 10 say that it imposes an unfair tax on smokers. While it is true that only a small portion of the money goes directly to anti-smoking programs, studies have shown that when cigarette prices go up, fewer people smoke, increasing health benefits for smokers and their families. And as the oddball coalition behind the measure--actor/director Rob Reiner and failed U.S. Senate candidate Michael Huffington--know, Californians are unlikely to raise taxes unless they can find a scapegoat to foot the bill.

Recommendation: Yes on Prop. 10.

Proposition 11:
Local sales and use taxes--revenue sharing

Proposition 11 raises that age-old question: What if California abandoned the ballot initiative process and nobody noticed? Whatcha got here is an initiative that squeezed under the deadline and didn't make the official Information Guide and Ballot Pamphlet, so the secretary of state had to issue a separate supplemental guide just for Prop. 11 and Prop. 1A (not to be confused with Prop. 1, but that's another story). If passed, it would allow local governments to voluntarily enter into sales-tax revenue-sharing agreements by a two-thirds vote of the local city council or county board of supervisors of each participating jurisdiction. Current law allows governments to share the "add-on" portion of a sales tax--that portion above the minimum 7.25 percent--but only if a majority of all the people in those jurisdictions agrees. That's never happened. Thus, proponents of Prop. 11 argue that the initiative could help curtail the practice of "developing for dollars" or building strip malls and big-box stores just for the ensuing sales-tax revenue and with no consideration for the potential degradation of quality of life. Prop. 11 could provide a mechanism for communities to cooperate rather than engage in bidding wars in order to attract new businesses.

Recommendation: Yes on Prop. 11.

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From the October 22-28, 1998 issue of Metro.

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