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Bumper Props

This election's propositions are relatively free of complication and controversy. But voters shouldn't be lulled into complacency.

The initiative gods have given California voters a reprieve this election cycle by asking us to weigh in on only eight state propositions. During the March primary, voters had to study more than 20 propositions, some of which required a yes if you really wanted to vote no, and some which nullified others on the same ballot.

There is no such madness on the November ballot. Yes means yes, and no means no on all eight items in question. How quaint!

Not only are the state props refreshingly simple this go-round, but they're also relatively free of controversy. In the recent past, California has served as a testing ground for homophobic, xenophobic or racist initiatives. This time, we're dealing with more mundane things like bonds, contracting and perks for the Legislature.

Sure, the school vouchers (Prop. 38) initiative is kind of controversial. But didn't we already vote on that in the '90s?

Despite the lack of sexy topics on the ballot, voters shouldn't be lulled into a sense of complacency. They still need to get to the polls and prevent school vouchers from crippling public education. They also need to vote yes and make it easier to pass bonds to upgrade crumbling schools (Prop. 39).

To paraphrase Woody Allen, half of life is just showing up. Here's a guide for what you should do after showing up at your designated polling place:

Proposition 32
Housing Assistance for Veterans: YES

The so-called Veterans Bond Act of 2000, put on the ballot by the Legislature, asks for voter approval to--for the 29th time in the program's history--renew the funding for a state-run program that helps California veterans of the Vietnam War and earlier conflicts get first-time homebuyer home loans at a special low interest rate.

The Office of Veterans Affairs says that the $500 million the bond raises will help about 2,400 Vietnam veterans purchase new homes or farms--none of which, one can only presume, will be in the vastly inflated Bay Area, where $250,000 won't get you a one-room hovel.

And therein lies the core of our argument in favor of the bill: in today's ridiculous real estate market, we feel that everyone deserves a break toward owning their first home.

The bill's opponents do not agree. But they err in the voter pamphlet when they say, disapprovingly, that under this bill, "even someone who stayed home in the National Guard is a qualified 'veteran' under the Cal-Vet loan program." According to the experts, such a person does qualify for some Cal-Vet loan programs, but not for the particular program these bonds will go toward, which requires that the vets in question have seen wartime service abroad prior to the end of the Vietnam conflict (the last U.S. conflict which qualifies vets for participation in this program).

Theoretically, taxpayers could end up paying off some of the debt that will be incurred herein, but only if all the veterans who take advantage of it default on their loans. This has never happened in this loan program's 88-year history, so what Proposition 32 really comes down to is how generous we feel toward veterans as a group. Vote yes on 32.

Proposition 33
Pensions for State Legislators: NO

Prop. 33 would allow members of the state Legislature to receive retirement benefits from the Public Employee's Retirement System (PERS), like all other public employees. It would counteract part of Prop. 140, an amendment voters enacted in 1990 to eliminate pensions for legislators.

According to the ballot summary, PERS costs would come out of a fixed annual amount provided in support of the Legislature. Supporters say it's only fair that legislators, who serve six to 14 years, should have access to the same retirement benefits as most other state workers.

"We want to have the same retirement benefits as the guy who cuts the grass, the guy who maintains the vehicles," says Assemblyman Bret Granlund (R-Yucaipa).

Supporters argue that the lack of additional benefits discourages low-income candidates from running for office, and the availability of a retirement plan would encourage diversity.

But the proposition's opponents call it an unnecessary perk, called for by the legislators who would receive the benefits. "This is not for the benefit of the public," said Lewis Uhler, the president of the National Tax-Limitation Committee. "This is crass self-interest."

We agree. Legislators already earn $99,000 per year and are eligible for about $25,000 per year more in tax-free reimbursement for living expenses. That's plenty of dough to invest in their own retirement.

Proposition 34
Finance Reform: NO

Prop. 34 is a cynical attempt by state politicians to sell voters a package of positive campaign finance reform. Voters shouldn't buy into it.

Proposition 34 would allow for almost unlimited campaign donations and undo the work of Proposition 208, the 1996 campaign reform initiative passed by 61.3 percent of voters. A year after it was enacted, a federal court suspended the proposition, and this year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled favorably in a Missouri case with provisions similar to 208. Legal experts believe that based on this case, Prop. 208 will be reinstated. If Prop. 34 passes, however, the chances of reviving Prop. 208 may diminish, if they are not not killed completely.

Even more suspect than the politicians' cheap ruse is the way in which Prop. 34 was fast-tracked through the Legislature without public input. Gov. Gray Davis, a Prop. 34 supporter, has even said that the bill was "devised largely in secret, without input from the public or knowledgeable sources."

Under Prop. 34--which does almost nothing to curb the influence of soft money--politicians and big parties win, not the voters.

Proposition 35
Private Contracting of Caltrans Projects: YES

We Bay Area folk know all too well just how long Caltrans can take to finish anything. Almost all the major regional highways--880, 17, 280, 101, 680--are in disarray and in need of repair and maintenance. Traffic congestion plagues the Bay Area as well as the rest of the state, which makes voting yes on Prop. 35 a wise decision.

The California Department of Transportation--Caltrans--has a backlog of public works projects that are completed largely by in-house engineers and architects. Current California law allows the state to contract outside services, but only under limited circumstances. Under Prop. 35, state agencies such as Caltrans would be able to use qualified, private engineers and architects simply to get the jobs done safely and efficiently. And maybe even more cheaply.

According to the Yes on Prop 35 campaign, an economic study of the proposition showed that the use of private sector service would save California taxpayers $2.5 billion annually and create 40,000 additional private sector jobs.

Opponents of the proposition say that the initiative is only following a trend of priv atization, and in doing so, public employee unions lose out on pay and work. They argue that public works projects should be completed by public employees.

But we're going along with the countless supporters of the proposition--sponsor Taxpayers for Fair Competition, the California chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and the California Minority and Women's Business Coalition--who say spread the wealth, and the work. With more people working on the job, long-term projects are accomplished sooner--on time and on budget.

Proposition 36
Diversion of Drug Offenders: NO

Proposition 36, backed by the same sponsors that helped pass the Medical Marijuana initiative, presents a sticky situation. Since the war on drugs has been waged, federal and state measures combating drugs have focused on criminal law enforcement over prevention and treatment. In California, where prisons have become a boom industry, that effort has largely failed and the public seems itching to enact more liberal drug policies.

At first glance, Proposition 36, which seeks to put most first- and second-time drug offenders into treatment programs instead of in jail, seems to fit that growing sentiment. If passed, the proposition would divert approximately 37,000 non violent drug offenders from California's prisons, which hold the highest rate of admissions for drug-related offenses in the United States.

So what's not to like?

Couched in decriminalizing terms, the proposition is cleverly misleading. Proposition 36 does not push for any real accountability, excluding what drug court judges regard as crucial court sanctions--the "carrot and stick" approach--used to get addicts to clean up. Proposition 36 also prohibits spending any of the money allocated in the initiative for drug testing, which, according to judges, is the only tried-and-true method to determine if someone is using drugs. When drug court graduates were asked what kept them in treatment, 91 percent said jail sanctions and 87 percent said frequent drug testing, according to a study done by American University.

The lack of treatment opportunities for offenders has important implications and, if anything, Proposition 36 accurately pinpoints California's growing interest in doing more about it. But the oddly worded initiative undermines the work currently being done by California's drug treatment courts and provides no satisfactory solution. Vote no and let's wait for more precise and forward-looking legislation on drugs.

Proposition 37
Eliminating Fees for Hazardous Businesses: NO

Let's pretend we don't give a damn about reading through lengthy and complicated propositions. Let's just say that all we want to do is show up at the polls and punch the hole next to the vote that will least embarrass us when we discover what the proposition was really all about.

There's actually a way to cut through the mumbo-jumbo--a Cliffs Notes for schooling ourselves on which way to vote. Just follow the money. Take Proposition 37, for example. Phillip Morris ponied up $350,000, Distilled Spirits Council of the United States kicked in $200,000 and Chevron sweetened the pot with another $200,000 to push it through. With this much information, do we even need to know what Prop. 37 is before making an educated guess on which way to vote?

For the record, companies that create hazards to our health have to pay a fee for the state to monitor and then clean up their messes. Proposition 37 would redefine these fees as taxes, therefore subjecting the fees to a two-thirds vote for approval. In other words, we--not the polluter--would be footing the cleanup bill.

Who's against Proposition 37? American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, Sierra Club, League of Women Voters--and Metro.

Proposition 38
School Vouchers: NO

The theory behind Prop. 38, venture capitalist Tim Draper's school voucher initiative, appears to be that since California's public schools are in need of some help, we should just take their funding away and give it to privately funded educational institutions. This logic is a little like attempting to cure the homeless problem by taking away people's cardboard boxes.

The initiative proposes to hand out vouchers in the amount of $4,000 per child, funds that would be used to enroll children in private schools. According to state budget analysts, this initiative, if passed, would cost around $3 billion, money that would be unloaded from the state's coffers, and certainly from the already inadequate public school budget.

While the parents of children already enrolled in private schools would no doubt welcome a publicly funded reduction in tuition payments, this action would indisputably jeopardize the futures of our children still remaining in public schools.

Proposition 39
Easier Passage of School Bonds: YES

You know we're in trouble when a numbskull like George W. Bush can pass himself off as an education candidate. Closer to home, California has its own problems, namely overcrowded schools and, in some cases, students who are forced to attend classes in Third World conditions characterized by portable trailers, minimal libraries and computer labs, broken heaters, crumbling plaster and poor plumbing.

If passed, Prop. 39 would overhaul the way school bond money is spent. It would amend the state constitution (which now requires a two-thirds vote of the electorate) to allow school districts to authorize by a two-thirds vote the sale of bonds not exceeding $100 per average household. The bond issue must then be approved by 55 percent of the voters. The proposition offers greater safeguards than guaranteed under Prop. 13, which set no limit on the amount of bonds that can be issued. At the same time, Prop. 39 makes it easier for struggling school districts to order the kind of capital improvements sorely need in California, which ranks second in the nation in class size (only Utah averages more students per classroom).

We urge a yes vote on Prop. 39.

Measure Up This year's regional ballot initiatives could have a long-lasting impact on the quality of life in Silicon Valley.

Get Out the Vote: Metro's quick voting guide.

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From the November 2-8, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.

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