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Compromising Propositions

uncle sam

Metro's
guide to
those
politically
fangled
state ballot
measures.



Proposition 204

Safe, Clean, Reliable Water Supply Act.

This act will provide hundreds of millions of dollars for water habitat restoration in the Bay-Delta and Sacramento Valley, and ensure future water supplies for all Californians, including farmers. Opponents of this Proposition, including libertarians, are in denial. Flashing the admittedly intimidating numbers--this is a billion-dollar bond proposal--and claiming the prop "smells like a boondoggle" benefiting "armies of bureaucrats" trivializes the issue. For generations to come, natural resources need protection and rehabilitation efforts--now. Perhaps California's most crucial resource is water.

The projects this act would fund are desperately needed. Environmentalists are wary of possible breaks for agribusiness alluded to in 204, and opponents are right to oppose public subsidies for corporate polluters. Nonetheless, Clean Water Action, the Sierra Club and the California League of Conservation Voters agree that citizens have little time to hand-wring over who will pay for restoration when endangered species and their habitats hang in the balance. Yes, agribusiness and corporations should pay for their share of water use and pollution--ultimately, the society as a whole would all end up paying the real ecological costs of the produce and products consumed. In the meantime, this act is a mostly sensitive, remarkably cooperative and ultimately pragmatic response to pressing water and environmental issues in this populous and parched state.

Recommendation: Yes on 204.


Proposition 205

Youthful and Adult Offender Local Facilities Bond Act of 1996.

Oh joy, just what California needs. Another $700 million bond measure to build youth and adult local facilities (read: jails), called for by Proposition 205. The Proposition's supporters--which include Republican and Democratic elected representatives, law enforcement officials and victims' rights groups--point toward the already overcrowded lockups that are only getting more packed in the wake of Three Strikes legislation. They claim the majority of criminals serve only a fraction of their jail sentences as a result. What they fail to mention is that Proposition 205 covers only the construction of local jails, the vast majority of whose inmates aren't rapists and killers, but drunken drivers, petty thieves and nonviolent drug offenders--hardly the rogue's gallery of hardened predators originally targeted by Three Strikes advocates. And despite the warnings about a new generation of youthful thugs, many of the teens who can't fit into current facilities have committed the vicious crimes of running away from home or violating curfews. Proposition 205's few opponents, led by the California Libertarian Party, also warn of the dangers of adding to California's $25 billion bond debt, the interest on which totals $3 billion a year. But given the public's Pavlovian conditioning toward voting for anything with the words "cops" or "jails" in it, expect 205 to pass handily.

Recommendation: No on 205


Proposition 206

Veterans' Bond Act of 1996.

Proposition 206 allows the Cal-Vet program to continue loaning veterans money to buy homes or farms. Supported by Democrats and Republicans alike, the Cal-Vet program has not yet cost taxpayers one dime. Why not vote for it? Because, Libertarians say, if the vets default on their loan, the taxpayers will have to foot the bill. Plus, they argue in the California Ballot pamphlet, "the government should not play favorites and give special privileges to veterans." Are they kidding? Nope, they maintain that vets have enough special assistance programs as it is. But they rest this "enough assistance" argument on an erroneous claim that Cal-Vet duplicates the federal VA home-loan program. Actually, the VA home-loan program acts only as a co-signer to loans vets must acquire from some other source, while the Cal-Vet program actually purchases homes for veterans and maintains title of the house until they've been paid off. Still, libertarian opponents cry, if they default, the electorate will have to pay--and while that hasn't happened before, California's real estate market isn't what it used to be. Well, that's not a convincing argument.

Recommendation: Yes on 206.


Proposition 207

Attorneys. Fees. Right to negotiate. Frivolous lawsuits.

On first read, Proposition 207 looks like an effort by lawyers to stiffen penalties on colleagues who file frivolous lawsuits. It does take a step in this direction. But 207 hides its needle in a haystack: It also makes it nearly impossible for the Legislature to put caps on attorneys' fees. Any such caps would require a vote by the electorate.

As in most initiatives, neither side on 207 can claim the moral high ground. The opponents claim to deplore the high contingency fees charged by some attorneys. (Under contingency lawyer arrangements, lawyers are paid a percentage of money awarded if they win a case. If they lose, they get nothing.)

Business interests claim that consumers get shafted when contingency fees are too high. But that's disingenuous. These companies don't want to give more money to consumers; they want to stop getting sued by consumers who often harbor legitimate gripes. Contingency cases are often the only way ordinary citizens can afford to take on the big guys. They certainly couldn't afford hourly lawyers' fees.

Draconian caps on attorney fees could indeed reduce consumers' ability to fight back. The measure is being pushed by trial lawyers, but there's no legislative effort afoot to cap these fees. The lawyers' lobby is already quite powerful; it doesn't need help from voters.

Recommendation: No on 207.


Proposition 208

Campaign contributions and spending limits. Restricts lobbyists.

Talk about a catfight. The quest for campaign finance reform has pitted public interest lawyer Barry Commoner's Common Cause (which backs 208) against the Ralph Nader­inspired California Public Interest Research Group (proponents of 212, a competing campaign finance reform initiative), and the result has been a highly financed (at least on the 212 side) squabble played out between an army of progressive-minded college students armed with fax machines and good intentions.

Indeed, these dueling measures are two good arguments for badly needed change, and two bad examples of how to get it. Unable to reach consensus back when the initiatives were being drafted, the advocates of each have wasted much of their (and the electorate's) time and resources attacking each other, endangering a huge reservoir of conceptual public support in the process.

Prop 208 sets voluntary campaign contribution limits, including a ceiling of 25 percent from political parties. There is a cap on the amount of political contributions that can be made by any single donor in one election, and a ban on fundraising in non-election years. Also, a spending limit restricts campaign outlay to no more than $1 per resident of the district.

The Achilles heel of 208 lies in its creation of "small contributor committees," groups meant to allow like-minded individuals to act collectively, but likely to be co-opted by many of the same forces the other provisions of the initiative are seeking to rein in. Nor is there anything to stop a wealthy individual from bankrolling her or his own campaign at amounts far greater than the voluntary limits 208 sets on contributor-financed campaigns.

Still, it should stand up in court, and that's a good start down that long road toward truly meaningful campaign finance reform.

Recommendation: Yes on 208.


Proposition 209

Prohibition against discrimination or preferential treatment by state and other public entities.

Proposition 209 is a constitutional amendment that would eliminate gender, race, color and ethnicity (but, interestingly, not religion or sexual preference) as factors in school admissions, public contracting and employment. The so-called "California Civil Rights Initiative" makes no specific mention of "affirmative action," but Proposition 209 will undeniably dismantle the hard-fought efforts of public agencies and schools to diversify their workforces through programs aimed at increasing the pools of qualified women and minority applicants. Quotas are not the issue here; the U.S. Supreme Court ruled quotas illegal a decade or so ago, except when imposed by courts to correct extreme problems. (The U.S. Office of Education cracked down on UC­Berkeley's Boalt School of Law in the early 1990s over the school's admissions policy, which amounted to a quota system.)

In the final analysis, voters should ask whether Prop. 209 is voter-mandated social policy or election year politics. According to Southern California dailies, Gov. Pete Wilson, in a private teleconference with Newt Gingrich and business leaders, touted 209 as a partisan issue that "works strongly to our [Republican] advantage." In other words, milking racial tensions for electoral popularity takes priority over the creation of sound long-term social policy for our multi-cultural state.

Proponents have tried to shake the minority-bashing feel of the anti-affirmative action movement by spinning 209 as something women and minorities want, the GOP's recent use of Martin Luther King, Jr's "I Have a Dream" speech in a TV ad notwithstanding.

With the task of making workplaces and schools reflect the diversity of our state still incomplete, Prop 209 is the ballot equivalent of a temper tantrum by those lacking both patience and pride.

Recommendation: No on 209.


Proposition 210

Minimum-wage increase.

For people who work or have worked minimum wage, choosing which hole to punch is simple. For the hard-core economists, and those who employ minimum wagers, a battle is forthcoming.

The argument against raising the minimum wage to $5 in 1997 and to $5.75 in 1998--$1 above the federal government's recently approved increase to $4.75--can be referred to as the basic Econ 1A scenario. If the minimum wage increases, employers cut back on the number of jobs available and require higher productivity from fewer employees in an attempt to keep costs down. Therefore, raising the wage will pinch small businesses, which will pass on higher prices and spark a hiring freeze.

But this mode of thinking glosses over one important fact: the current minimum wage is chump change.

A higher minimum wage will most benefit families with the least: low-income and lower middle-class families, especially one-income households, women, and minorities.

The top three minimum-wage jobs are retail, grocery and fast food. At the current rate, the multitude of burger-flippers and hourly laborers can't compete with inflation. A 'yes' vote would push the french fry rate to $5 an hour on March 1, 1997 and to $5.75 an hour on March 1, 1998.

Raising the minimum wage is an effective, popular, easy-to-understand, non-bureaucratic policy to help families. The modest boost will generate concrete income gains for precisely those families who need it most.

Recommendation: Yes on Prop 210.


Proposition 211

Attorney-client fee arrangements. Securities fraud. Lawsuits.

Proposition 211 is designed to make it easier for shareholders to file class-action lawsuits against firms after stock prices drop. Shareholders' lawyers charge that some companies fraudulently inflate their stock prices through earnings projections, product announcements and the like. The suits have had their heaviest impact on the tech industry, with their volatile stocks and optimistic forecasts..

Prop. 211 has received support from seniors' and labor groups who say that small shareholders choke when public companies blow smoke. But 211 is actually written and mostly funded by securities lawyers who love to harass valley companies any time their stocks drop.

Supporters of 211 portray it as a sort of widows-and-orphans protection act, which is silly. Anyone with a grain of sense knows that investing in technology stocks with high upsides is riskier than passbook savings accounts. Stockbrokers and mutual fund managers who fail to warn their clients of this, incidentally, are unaffected by this Proposition.

Despite recent changes in federal law, when fraud occurs, shareholders can still sue company officials when they can prove they based investment decisions on bad, company-supplied information. Proposition 211 would make it easier for shareholders to recover in those situations. But it ensures that payback in unfair ways. If, for example, company officials are broke, an outside accounting firm could have to pay the full settlement even if it was found to be only 10 percent responsible.

Recommendation: No on 211.


Proposition 212

Campaign contributions and spending limits. Repeals gift and honoraria limits. Restricts lobbyists.

Proponents of Prop 212 have railed at great length against the flaws found in Prop 208. But their own measure contains crucial lapses as well. The most obvious is its repeal of the state law that currently restricts gifts and honoraria to elected officials. Assuming that the legislature would then be honor-bound to enact tougher limits is uncharacteristically wishful thinking. Further, the mandatory financial limits are at odds with prevailing court decisions, which hold that such limits must be voluntary, thus raising the likelihood that the meat of 212 will be tossed out by the courts when those provisions face their inevitable legal challenge.

Finally, there is the "poison pill" clause of 212, which says that if both measures pass but 212 has more votes, the provisions of 212 prevail in their entirety, and the provisions of 208 will be nullified in their entirety. So if 212 passes, 208 goes out the window--even if more voters liked 208's provisions--all thanks to the poison pill. Prop 208 has no such language, but that means that if both pass and even if 208 gets more votes, 212's repeal of the gift ban would still be enacted.

And if the courts later shoot down major chunks of 212, which is expected, then the state could end up with less campaign finance reform than it has now. Nifty, huh?

In general, 212 sets more stringent limits on campaign funds, including a requirement that 75 percent of a candidate's money be raised within the district he or she represents, and a ban on transferring funds between candidates. It sets lower, mandatory limits on individual contributions and would outlaw contributions from unions and businesses. And it gets rid of the tax deductions that lobbyists can claim for their expenses, a provision that the legislative analyst says would increase state tax revenues by about $6 million a year.

Once again, it appears that the initiative process will not give the voters the last word on a critical issue, but may serve merely as an advisory to the courts as they eventually try to sort it all out.

Recommendation: No on Prop 212.


Proposition 213

Limitation on recovery to felons. Uninsured motorists. Drunk drivers.

On the surface, this Proposition--riding the wave of the criminal law reform craze--seems harmless enough. It would make it unlawful to sue for injuries or damages resulting during the commission of a crime, stopping uninsured motorists, drunken drivers and felons from suing because they were hurt when fleeing the scene of a crime. Proponents argue that "illegal behavior should not be rewarded." Sounds logical. Opponents of this ballot initiative, however, point out convincingly that it's a wolf in sheep's clothing--a cleverly disguised effort by the insurance industry to slip "no-fault" auto insurance through the back door, since it would prohibit an uninsured driver or person convicted of driving under the influence from suing someone at fault for an accident for such "noneconomic" losses as pain and suffering. California voters in March rejected a ballot measure that would have instituted no-fault insurance--which in other states has yielded huge profits for insurance companies. Indeed, the list of contributors to state Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush--who hatched this plan--reads like a Who's Who of the insurance industry lobby, which has pumped bushels of cash into his campaign. The courts already can deny felons the right to recover damages for their crimes.

Recommendation: No on 213.


Proposition 214

Health care. Consumer protection.

Proposition 216

Health care. Consumer protection. Taxes on corporate restructuring.

These two Propositions were born from essentially the same initiative, an attempt to rein in some of the more egregious excesses of managed care. But, with the inevitable "policy differences," backers split into two camps, leaving voters with double the opportunity to be confused.

What makes the HMO so beloved by the employers who choose one for their company health coverage is its ability to contain costs. This same virtue has also won HMOs the enmity of front-line workers--nurses and doctors--and patients who have paid the price, sometimes with their lives, of having ailments that don't quite fit the HMOs' cookie-cutter template of low-cost health care.

Both 214 and 216 want to ban financial incentives to doctors who delay or deny medical care, ban treatment denials without a second opinion, and prevent gag orders.

The more moderate Proposition, 214, also would require adequate staffing in hospitals and nursing homes and would prevent HMOs from firing health-care workers without just cause. Not surprisingly, the SEIU is the main backer behind this one.

But 216 wants to go further by creating a consumer watchdog panel, making it easier for patients to sue and even going so far as taxing the HMO executives on their obscene stock options gained from successful downsizing efforts. This is particularly tempting when one learns that the nice Mr. Leonard Abramson, chairman of Pennsylvania HMO U.S. Healthcare, will pull down a $1 billion bonus this year for shepherding his company toward a merger with Aetna Life and Casualty.

Something needs to stop this stampede toward "cost containment," which has surgically amputated patient care from the Hippocratic Oath, replacing it instead with a collagen-enhanced bottom line. But, neither of these Propositions is the answer. The problem lies in expecting the government--again--with its endless miles of red tape and regulations to rein in a 900-pound gorilla. Both of these Propositions suffer from nebulous wording, unclear consequences and, with 216, creating a watchdog agency where three already exist.

The best move is to send the well-intentioned framers back to the drawing board for a better-designed initiative that will do what is so desperately needed.

Recommendation: No on 214 and 216.


Proposition 215

Medical use of marijuana.

Yes, opponents of Prop. 215 are probably correct when they say passage of this Proposition will make it easier to get marijuana. That's the whole point. With the recommendation of a licensed physician, medical marijuana users will be able to grow a small amount of marijuana on their property. "Growing their own" will save cash-depleted and long-suffering cancer, AIDS and glaucoma patients money and red tape. And patients will be able to self-medicate with less chance of getting arrested and hauled off to jail. Just this summer, Santa Rosa resident Alan Martinez, who smokes marijuana on the advice of his doctor to control seizures, saw his house raided by police--and now faces three years in prison for cultivation.

Marijuana has been tested and found safe, even by a DEA judge, when compared to other, legal drugs. Thus, marijuana--a drug which has less negative impact on the body than alcohol and, according to many physicians, some beneficial effects--may be one of the safest medicines around.

Republican opponents say they support medical use of marijuana, but a simple "doctor's recommendation" for marijuana use will be too easy to obtain. This likelihood, however, will be tempered by the fact that if a patient is arrested for possessing or growing marijuana, the prescribing doctor must testify in court.

A wide spectrum of people, young and old, liberal and conservative, use marijuana for cancer treatments and relief of asthma and pain--with negligible side effects. Current regulations make access to medical marijuana by doctors and patients, even for research, outrageously difficult. Cancer doctors and the California Nurses Association support this measure. Both physicians and their patients should have access to medicine which can help.

Recommendation: Yes on 215.


Proposition 217

Top income tax brackets. Reinstatement. Revenues to local agencies.

The School and Community Investment Initiative, dubbed the "Soak the Rich" Initiative by its critics, would reinstate the 10 percent and 11 percent tax rate on the state's highest-income taxpayers that expired in 1995. Despite noises to the contrary, approximately half the money would go to schools, the other half to local government.

Under the measure, an individual would pay 10 percent on taxable earnings between $115,000 and $230,000. Taxable earnings over $230,000 would be taxed at the 11 percent rate. A married couple would trip over the 10 percent line if their taxable income ranged between $230,000 and $460,000. If they exceeded $460,000, they'd pay 11 percent.

Opponents of 217--a coalition of business organizations and anti-tax activists--say that even though the measure would only affect about 1 percent of the taxpayers in the state, the state doesn't need any more taxes, period. And, they claim the Proposition will hurt the small-business ventures of mom-and-pop businesses, but this is not the case.

Although 80 percent of small businesses pay personal taxes rather than corporate taxes, not all of them calculate their tax liabilities in the top brackets. The Franchise Tax Board's most recent figures, from 1994, show that out of 2.1 million schedules C and E (filed by people who earned non-salary business income) only 87,000--or 4 percent--exceeded the amount that would be affected by the 10 percent rate.

In other words, only a fraction of small businesses will be hurt by this Proposition. But the shoe will come down hard on the wealthy. No wonder they're squealing.

The infusion of new money won't buy California into the middle ranks, let alone the top, of the nation's per-pupil spending (this state is currently in 42nd place), but it will boost the state up a notch or two. California's schools need all the help they can get.

Recommendation: Yes on 217.


Proposition 218

Voter approval for local government taxes. Limitations on fees, assessments and charges.

Just forget for a moment that Proposition 218 will slash more than $100 million a year from fire and police protection, libraries and schools--virtually every local government service, according to the legislative analyst. Let's focus for a moment on that pleasant-sounding name: "Voter Approval for Local Government Taxes," or as its anti-tax proponents call it, the "Right to Vote on Taxes Act." The election might be won on that title alone. What could be wrong with voting on taxes?

A little background. Proposition 13 killed property taxes as a significant revenue source for local governments while requiring a two-thirds vote to raise taxes for specific projects. Proposition 62, passed in 1986, mandates majority voter approval of new general taxes by local government.

As a result, local governments now must panhandle the state or federal governments for funds. To try to regain control of their own domains, local governments devised "assessment districts" in which property owners pay for government services that supposedly benefit their property directly, like parks or fire protection. They've also constructed "fees" like utility-users taxes.

Are these loopholes? Sure they are. They're virtually the only alternative localities have to desperately building another strip mall to raise sales tax or ratcheting up developers' fees. When local politicans can't loophole, they waste tons of time crafting and pushing ballot measures to raise revenues.

At first glance Proposition 218 seems to be furthering democracy by requiring a vote for all of these taxes, including the "hidden" ones. In fact, it's a frighteningly anti-democratic measure. Proponents of 218 portray local politicians as devious demons who will find any way to raise money. What they seem to have forgotten is that these are the same people elected to provide services to fulfill the population's needs. They review budgets; they make plans; they should have the right to raise or cut taxes to promote their coherent vision of what's good for their constituents. If the electorate doesn't like these people, they can vote them out.

A better solution might be an initiative that prohibited a vote on local tax increases. Then maybe voters would start paying attention to their local leaders, rather than ignoring them until a tax measure comes up. (After all, citizens don't vote on federal taxes.)

Proposition 218 requires holding an endless series of special elections, costing several million a year. It demands that even public agencies like schools pay property taxes, a seemingly vengeful act by the Jarvis school-haters that will only create more red tape and further impoverish schools.

It also gives proportional representation to property owners in assessment elections. That means if the big electric plant doesn't want to pay for a new park, local residents get no new park. They call this power to the people?

Recommendation: No on 218.

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From the October 31-November 6, 1996 issue of Metro

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