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Opinion: Proposition Pandemonium…Again!

Hey Sacramento voters, it’s that time of year again when we grab our ballots and vote up or down on matters about which we admittedly know little or nothing – California Propositions. Hiram Johnson’s well-meaning 1911 effort at a grass-roots tool to control the undue influence of big railroads has left us with a legacy of poor public policymaking.

And this year is no exception. Come November 6th we’ll be asked to render judgment on no less than eleven Propositions on which sponsors and opponents are spending millions of dollars to influence (aka cajole and mislead) our decisions. If that doesn’t wet your appetite for frivolity, however, don’t fret: 93 more propositions have been filed with the Secretary of State of which six are in the active signature-gathering stage.

The November 2012 topics range from two hefty tax measures – Propositions 30 and 38 – to, at the other extreme, the epitome of triviality, Proposition 33, a proposal to allow insurance companies to set auto insurance “prices” (premiums) based on previous coverage (or not) which will have little if any impact. Then there’s Proposition 40 to undue the only helpful reform of electoral district gerrymandering in recent memory; now that’s a real winner. Even a proposition, “3 strikes,” whose consequences – prison overcrowding and budget-busting costs – were predictable is back for correction as Proposition 36. And further wasting time, paper, cyberspace and money, there’s Proposition 31, to reform the State budget process, that appears to be entirely beside the point.

Since the average voter has little time or interest in doing the research required to develop an informed opinion on these propositions, the best general rule is to simply vote no on them. This is because they typically (a) benefit a special interest group to the detriment of the general public welfare, (b) are poorly written and as a result if passed are subject to legal challenge by their opponents, (c) produce unexpected (often adverse) consequences, (d) exist absent other competing alternative priorities or solutions, (e) are advertised in a misleading fashion, and (f) represent a breakdown of representative government. Why have an elected Legislature if it doesn’t effectively represent our needs and preferences?

The history of propositions in California has been one of substituting poor policy proposals for representative government while spawning a large cottage industry of consultants paid to gather signatures at your local Sacramento grocery or mall to qualify the initiatives and to then design and deliver misleading advertising (mostly televised, but increasingly online) about those that do. Millions (an estimated $3 million per proposition) spent to make poor, typically uninformed, public policy. Luckily, only half of the propositions that qualified for the ballot during the past decade actually passed.   

That said, however, there are several sleepers on the November ballot – namely, Proposition 34 that repeals the death penalty and the two tax measures, Propositions 30 and 38. On the one hand, the state’s structural budget deficit cries out for new tax revenues as well as program cuts – rather than program cuts alone. What if both measures pass?  Or neither? They are substantively different. Moreover, both tie their added revenues to specific uses, mainly education, that can certainly use the support, but further tie up the allocation of public monies, ignoring other priorities and preventing the Legislature from making good budgets even if they wanted to. Finally, both measures are temporary, ranging from seven to 11 years. This wouldn’t be necessary if prior propositions hadn’t put the Legislature in the awkward position of requiring a 2/3 vote to raise tax revenues but just a majority vote to adjust expenditures.

As Johnson himself might have said at the onset of this proposition debacle, “this is one helluva way to run a railroad.”

Chuck McIntyre
Sacramento economist and writer

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