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Friday, October 07, 2016


"The cornerstone of democracy rests on the foundation of an educated electorate." . . . “An informed citizenry is at the heart of a dynamic democracy.”- Thomas Jefferson

I just received my “Official Voter Information Guide” for the November 8, 2016 election. It is 220 pages of print about the ballot propositions, which are numbered 51 through 67. That is 17 proposals for changes in California law.

The changes included the extremely serious — whether to the eliminate the death penalty (62) or facilitate quicker executions (66); place more limits on firearms (63); modify the parole system to emphasize rehabilitation (57) . . .

. . . The usual range of tax measures: school bonds (51); medi-cal hospital fee (52); revenue bonds (53); tax extension (55); cigarette tax (56) . . .

A couple of measures that are controversial for special interest groups: English proficiency (58); political spending by corporations (59); state prescription drug pricing (61); . . .

And a few that involve social policy: marijuana legalization (64); adult film performer condoms (60); carryout (grocery) bag charges (65); and ban on plastic bags (67).

The book which was prepared by the California Secretary of State, contains a 9 page “Quick-Reference Guide” that sums up each proposal in a paragraph, with short arguments for and against. If that is not enough — and it certainly is not, considering the complexity and gravity of many of these measures — there follows (page 18-113) the Legislative Analyst’s supposedly objective estimate of the fiscal effects of each measure; detailed arguments pro and con by supporters and opponents.

Then there are a few pages giving an “Overview of State Bond Debt” and one with “Candidate’s Statements” by Kamala Harris and Loretta Sanchez, running for the Senate.
Page 118-222 includes the “Text of Proposed Laws,” the actual language of the statutory  and constitutional changes suggested by each proposition. It is in the fine print and legalistic language we lawyers love to use.

SO, this is democracy at its rawest. The People are asked to decide issues directly — no legislators or committees or councils intercede. In the Progressive Era during the early years of the 20th century, this process was considered to be a necessary reform of a corrupt political system. For many years, federal, state and local legislatures, the judiciary, and executive offices, all were controlled by an elite group of power brokers: railroad and oil magnates, real estate tycoons, and political machines.

The chosen route to progressive reform was the Referendum, Initiative and Recall, that sidestepped the professionals and put issues directly to the voters.  

When I first arrived in California in the 1960’s, the processes mostly had fallen into disuse. The three branches of the political system seemed to be effective; it was an era of economic and population growth. The states infrastructure was new and a model for the country. Same with the education system — state colleges and universities were considered tops (and mostly tuition free). The El-Hi schools around the state were highly rated. Funding for the education system was based on local property taxes, on the social theory that local homeowners had a stake in the education of local residents. In the growing state, property values were rising each year.

But that caused a problem. A fellow named Howard Jarvis had been around for many years. He was one of many considered “tax kooks” who were always whining about the rise in taxes. Jarvis and others had often pushed for laws to limit taxes and spending. He got nowhere with the legislature and turned to the initiative process. Many times he was unable to get the necessary signatures even to get on the ballot.

But as real estate continued to boom, home prices soared, and as a result, people who had bought a modest home years before now found themselves in houses valued many times more, and had to pay taxes based on the theoretical market value.

In 1978, Proposition 13 passed with a two-thirds majority. It permanently altered the State Constitution to limit real estate taxes to less than 3% of market value.    

[Over time, the results have been disastrous. California schools have had to scrounge for funding. The state’s infrastructure continues to decay. In personal terms the inequity is shocking. If you bought your home before 1978 and stayed in it, you pay the same minimal property tax although the value of your house has skyrocketed. Your new neighbor who just bought the house next door must pay many times the property tax you do.]

The floodgates opened after Proposition 13. It has been used for many other things than tax reform. Due to a series of measures that constituted a wish list for prosecutors, draconian criminal laws are now in place. The result is the most crowded death row in the nation, the largest prison population in the American history, and a justice system that makes it more likely to convict the innocent.

The state legislature is considered by many to be a sick joke. Term limits — Prop140 in 1990 — eliminated anyone who understood how laws and government worked. It put the state government firmly in the hands of lobbyists and powerful interest groups who had all the information at their fingertips and the passion to push their agendas. In 2012, another initiative (Prop 28) had to be passed to reform the reform by extending limits to 12 years in offices.

One look at the 220 page book makes the problem clear. People don’t understand what they are voting for. They certainly don’t read this book. For most people their first view of the measures is while examining their ballot while voting. That is why proponents of measures take great pains in titling their proposals: “The Victim’s Bill of Rights” is one of my favorites. Who could possibly vote against that, no matter what it contained (including things you might not approve if you read it).

That leaves it up to advertising to “inform” the electorate. The 30 second ads that inundate the air and now social media prod us one way or the other with dire warnings or utopian promise for each proposal. If you are quick and sharp-eyed you might see the underwriting in fine print . . . “paid for by Americans For . . . (or against) . . . ”

Here’s a sample of the current pushers from the Quick-Refence Guide:
Many begin “Californians for . . .
Eg: “. . . for Quality Schools”
“. . . to Protect Local Control”
“. . . For and Effective Legislature”
“. . . For Hospital Accountability . . .”
“. . . For Budget Stability”
“. . . For English Proficiency”
“. . . for Lower Drug Prices” vs. “. . . Against the Deceptive Rx Proposition”
“. . . Aganst Waste”

At the end of the legislative analyst’s pages for each measure, web sites are named that might lead to the discover the “top 10 contributors” to the measures.

These give you clues to aid your decision making. For example, Prop 53, “Revenue Bonds,” requires statewide voter approval to sell more than $2 billion in bonds. Supporters call it the “Stop The Blank Checks Initiative.” The “Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association” is one of its spokesgroups. Opponents include “Firefighters” and “Sheriffs” Associations who want continued local control over funding for infrastructure and capital improvements.

The arguments pro and con (and rebuttals to each) are included in mostly conclusionary mini-essays.

Generally, you are given enough information to at least get a sense of who is pushing and who is pulling, and why. But is it a better way to decide this issue than representative government?

If this was before the state legislature (Senate and Assembly) committees made of elected representatives of the voters from each community in the state would consider it by hearing and questioning witnesses for and against, comparing the evidence, fitting it into the other fiscal and policy considerations they deal with. They would ask constituents for opinions, would see where the money is most needed and where wasted.

That is how it is supposed to work. We know that it hasn’t lived up to ideals, not by a long shot. But look what we have now. We are at the mercy of the manipulative nature of advertising by the very special interest elites that the Initiative process was intended to protect us from. It adds to the polarization of voters: automatic knee-jerk reaction: against any taxes or spending for anything . . . and then complain about how education fails and the potholes and the broken water lines . . . basing justice reform on anecdotal evidence — a drug dealer gets off in Sacramento . . . so change the state law that has worked for years and incarcerate a generation of young men with no hope . . . until we might pass another initiative when we finally wake up.

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