Monday, October 18, 2010

Ut Suffragium: 2010 California Propositions

Hey folks. So election season is upon us, and with it comes a vast array of Propositions, which essentially are voted-on mandates by the citizenry because we feel if Legislature deals with the issue they'll fuck it up, ignore it, or use it to fuel their own self-interests. Unfortunately, this criticism is applicable.
In an ideal world, California would not need ballot initiatives because their voted representatives are ably representing them in state legislature. And while a majority voted "will of the people" ballot initiative seems like a good way of keeping Legislature honest, all too often Propositions are little more than efforts by special interests to inhibit the work of Legislature or carve out pieces of budget pie for themselves.

Commercials for and against these propositions take over television and radio during election season, battling with ads for and against elected officials and their competitors over who can create the best smear campaign, and the result is that what the proposition is really about gets lost in invective and fear-mongering.

So what I thought I'd do, on my little corner of the blogosphere, is break down, in as fair language as possible, what each Proposition is about. I'll tell you which way I plan on voting and why, but I don't want people to use this as a voting guide. If you agree with the way I'm voting that's fine, and if you disagree then hopefully it means you've thought critically about the issue and aren't voting the way your political party is telling you to vote without thinking about it.

Voter turnout is expected to be terribly low this season, so I encourage you to get out and make your voice heard, even if it means voting for nobody. Very often (unfortunately) I leave a vote blank or write in "none" if I am not happy with the candidates. I've heard many arguments from many different people on why voting is a waste of time, or that they don't vote to make a statement. But that's wrong on both accounts. When you don't vote, the only statement you make is "I don't care who runs my city/state/country and I don't care how they do it." Politicians don't look at the voting percentages and say, "Hmm, about 70% of California (+ or - 5%) is not voting, and I bet they are abdicating their voice to make a statement of how bad we are doing things." In 2006, voter turnout was 33.6%. A politician only needs 17% of the population to vote for him with that kind of turnout. Check out this math: 17% of California's population is a little more than 6 million people. That's a little more than half the population of Los Angeles County. The number of registered voters in Los Angeles County in 2006 was a little more than 4 million people.
If getting (re-)elected means getting 6 million votes, how many politicians do you really think are going to care about the other 30 million people who "can't be bothered" or "are making a statement"? Vote your party line, vote your religious beliefs, or vote making intelligent, informed decisions about each issue and candidate even if it means you vote for "none". But vote. Make the fight for a majority vote mean something. Otherwise you end up in situations where the 30 million people who did not or could not vote for the "winner" get ignored by the politician catering to his 6 million person constituency.

Now, on with the Props.

Prop 19: The "Pot" Bill
Prop 19 legalizes marijuana under California law but not federal law. It allows local governments to tax and regulate the commercial production, distribution, and sale of marijuana. Essentially, the language of the initiative creates a similar legal treatment of pot as alcohol.
It prohibits the sale to and use for minors. It prohibits the use of pot in public "except in a public establishment licensed for on-site marijuana consumption." It's legal to drink at home and at places that are licensed to serve alcohol, and the initiative treats pot the same way. The criminal and civic penalties are similar to alcohol as well. It's illegal to drive under the influence. Employers have the right to address whether the consumption will affect job performance.

The one issue the initiative fails to cover is how the legalization of pot affects California Penal Code 647(f) PC: "Drunk in Public". The caveat for a DiP infraction is that the level of intoxication must inhibit your ability to care for yourself or others and you must not obstruct streets, sidewalks, or another other public walkways. Typically, courts include drug use under the DiP misdemeanor, but how the legalization of marijuana affects the law in this case is not addressed under the issue and could potentially cause problems.

In spite of that, I think legalizing pot is a good idea. It certainly affects the body no worse than alcohol does, and scientists have proven there are medical benefits to its consumption in certain instances. The main reason pot is stigmatized as being worse than alcohol is from such teetotaler films as "Reefer Madness" and the massive smear campaign launched by William Randolf Hearst in the 1930s. Hearst and DuPont petrochemicals had entered into a deal for processing wood pulp into paper, and since hemp created better, longer lasting paper for cheaper, they needed to eliminate the competition. That's it. That's why pot is illegal. A rich man wanted to become richer. There is certainly no good reason to treat pot in any other way than alcohol.

Prop 20: Redistricting 1
What Prop 20 does is adds the task of drawing congressional district lines to the California Citizens Redistricting Commission (CCRC) created by the passage of Prop 11 in 2008.

Prior to 2008, legislative districts were determined by Congress.
The Congressional districts determine how many representatives and senators should be in Congress, and legislative districts determine how much of each congressional district is handled by any particular representative. What the CCRC did is remove the power of legislative redistricting from the hands of Congress in favor of an independent panel comprised of a mixture of both major political parties and independents.
What could and did happen prior to the CCRC is legislators would redraw their district lines to include and remove portions of city districts to best ensure their reelection. Say you are a Republican representative and a portion of your district typically votes Democrat. Before the CCRC took over, you could just redraw your district so that you no longer represented that portion of the city. Essentially it was legal disenfranchisement.
Following the 2010 census, how many senators and representatives California has will change according to population growth and the shift of density eastward. Some cities may gain representatives, others may lose them, and some representatives and senators may just need to be added to Congress. Prop 20 allows the CCRC to handle the process of Congressional redistricting, in order to avoid the potential problems that arise when Congress is in charge of how much power in representation it allots itself.

Prop 20 is a good idea and I support it. Frankly, I'm in favor of abolishing the (redundant) Senate altogether. Allowing legislature to pick and choose how and who they represent is a bad idea.

To save space, I'll just say that Prop 27 not only opposes Prop 20, but wants to do away with the CCRC altogether. Since I'm in favor of Prop 20, I'll vote no on Prop 27.
It's technically possible that both propositions can receive a majority vote, in which case the proposition that received more votes will be the one to go into effect.

Prop 21: A new vehicle license fee.
Prop 21 is an initiative to add an $18 fee when you register your vehicle every year (vehicles registered under the Commercial Vehicle Registration Act are excluded). The money accrued from this fee goes into a trust fund for the sole use of maintaining and operating California's 278 state parks.

Currently, the general fund appropriates $150 million to state parks, even though there is a maintenance backlog of about $1 billion. With the already beleaguered budget, what this initiative does is free that $150 million to be used elsewhere and use the $500 million accrued to the fund each year to our parks open and operating more efficiently. Last year, one proposed solution to the state parks problem was closing more than 200 of them. Hence this initiative. One benefit to this fee is that California vehicles will receive free admission to state parks, with the caveat that "free admission does not include camping, tour fees, swimming pool fees, the use of boating facilities, museum and special event fees, any supplemental fees, or special event parking fees."

I strongly support Prop 21. Yeah, with vehicle licensing fees already high, paying an extra 18 bucks is going to suck a little bit (a very little bit, $18 aint that much). But the perks so greatly outweigh this extra little bit that you only have to pay once a year. Healthy, vibrant, well-maintained state parks help support a healthy, vibrant tourism industry, which helps provide jobs and money to cities and local governments. Healthy, vibrant state parks also help support a healthy, vibrant environment and wildlife.
Our state parks provide an abundant recreational, historical, and cultural resource, and if the choice is between closing 75% of our state parks or paying a little more to register my car, then I think there is no choice at all. I'm going to pay a little more. Anyone who enjoys going to the beach, or camping, or hiking or mountain biking, or swimming or boating on a lake, or skiing or snowboarding should feel the same way. Especially if the upshot is that it'll be cheaper to do those activities.

Prop 22: A State Borrowing Ban
What Prop 22 does is rewrite California's Constitution to prohibit the State from raiding local government funds in the event of a budget emergency.

Last year, the state took or borrowed $5 Billion from local governments in order to handle the massive deficit problems facing the state. This initiative prohibits the State from "delaying the distribution of tax revenues for transportation, redevelopment, or local government projects and services" (official summary).

I don't like Prop 22 and I'm going to vote against it. Granted, I don't like that the State mucks about with local funds, but this proposal is worse, especially because it rewrites 13 sections of the state Constitution, adds 3 sections, and removes a section. Prop 22 is over-reaching itself, mainly at the benefit of local redevelopment. Getting a simple majority during low voter turnouts is easier for special interest groups, as I demonstrated above, and what this proposal does is mess with budgeting at a ballot-box level.
Our State budget is a mess and desperately needs fixing, but Prop 22 will cause more problems than it fixes.

Prop 23: Suspend the Global Warming Act
Prop 23 is an initiative to suspend the Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32), passed in 2006 by the Senate and signed by the Governor, until unemployment in California drops to 5.5% or less for four consecutive quarters. What AB 32 does set limits on greenhouse gas emissions, so that by 2020 GHGE are at similar levels as being produced in 1990.

In January of 2010, unemployment in California was more than 12%, with some counties reporting unemployment as high as 20%. Proponents of Prop 23 point out that enacting AB 32 will cost jobs, raise energy prices, and do little to halt climate change anyway. Opponents of Prop 23 point out that voting yes on Prop 23 will cost jobs, keep energy prices high, and encourage polluters to continue business as usual.

I think it's kind of absurd that both the proponents and opponents argue some of the same outcomes whether or not Prop 23 passes. Energy costs go up and jobs go down. I strongly oppose Prop 23. AB 32 was written with job creation and small business protection in mind. A lot of ads are trying to hide what Prop 23 is really about by calling it "The California Jobs Initiative."
Everyone's worried about jobs, and I think proponents of the bill are hoping voters will look at the basics of the bill, that AB 32 will be suspended until unemployment drops to 5.5% for a year, without considering what AB 32 is trying to do.
For the record, in the past 3 decades unemployment has only dropped below 5.5% only 3 times, so Prop 23 is really about killing AB 32 rather than suspending it.
The top two donors for Prop 23 are two Texas-based oil companies: Valero and Tesoro, and they are some of the highest polluters in the state. What Prop 23 is then, is a threat from these companies. "IF AB 32 goes into effect in 2012 as planned, prepare to see our prices sky-rocket in retaliation. If we have to clean up our act, then YOU are going to pay for it."
Screw these guys. The effects of pollution on our land, our water, our skies, our food, our health, and our children's health are more important than two companies worried they are going to lose market share to green energy. I support AB 32, so I'm voting no on Prop 23.

Prop 24: Eliminate Tax Breaks
Prop 24 repeals legislation that allows California business to reduce their tax liability. As part of budget agreements in 2008, California corporations received three key tax breaks to help them save billions.
The first tax break is called Loss Carry-backs. What this means is if a corporation is experiencing a loss during any current year, that corporation can receive refunds on taxes paid for the two years previous.
The second tax break is called The "Single-sales" Factor. Previously, corporations with a large presence in California but who make sales in other states would be taxed on all income, including property-, payroll-, and sales-based income. This tax break allows corporations to instead choose to be taxed only on sales-based income made only in the state of California.
The third tax break is Tax Credit-sharing. If a corporation ends up with more tax credits than it can use, it can distribute any remaining credits to affiliates.

Tax regulators estimate that approximately 120,000 business in California would have higher taxes if Prop 24 passes.
I know our economy is in shambles, and I know that unemployment is a huge problem, but I support Prop 24. The tax-breaks were signed behind closed doors after intense lobbying by major corporations. They didn't care whether or not the tax breaks helped small business, and if Prop 24 passes, the only tax-break that small business should really miss is the Loss Carry-back.
Prop 24 is targeting the big-money corporations, and it really is unfortunate that some smaller businesses may get caught in cross-fire. On the other hand I have to wonder about the quality of a company that can only "keep its doors open" by utilizing tax loop-holes that only went in effect two years ago. Companies need to pay their fair share of taxes, just like the rest of us.

Prop 25: A simple majority
What Prop 25 does is change the requirement for Legislature to pass a budget and sign budget-related legislation from a 2/3 majority to a simple majority. Tax issues would still require a 2/3 majority.
The other part of Prop 25 financially penalizes State Legislature for every day past June 15 they fail to produce a budget.

I like the financial penalty aspect of Prop 25, but I have to vote no on this one. As the political presence of each party fluctuates each voting season, a simple majority vote on the budget would cause the budget to fluctuate wildly, depending on the goals of each party. Having a 2/3 majority vote means that most of the State Legislature has to support the budget, which will cause much less fluctuation. It makes it more difficult to pass a budget each year, true. But in the long run it is the best way to assure that someday California will have a budget that works and doesn't run a deficit. Wild swings one way or another will just cause financial turmoil. Too bad Prop 25 didn't simply propose a financial penalty.

Prop 26: Fees become taxes
What Prop 26 does is require certain State and local fees to passed by a 2/3 majority vote, just like taxes. Currently those fees only require a simple majority vote to pass. Prop 26 also requires certain local fees to be voted on by the local citizenry.

Proponents of Prop 26 essentially view fees as taxes, except they slip past the requirement of a super-majority in order to pass. What Prop 26 does is treat fees like taxes and require a 2/3 majority vote to pass them.

I have to vote no on this one. I am willing to grant that some fees are just a sneaky tax in disguise, but some fees are necessary and immediate, and requiring a super-majority before passage could effectively kill the fee. Such fees like ones passed on corporations that cause high pollution and health problems. Requiring 2/3 majority on any fee, even the simple and reasonable ones, will bog down the election process, fuel litigation, and become a bureaucratic nightmare. Should there be a way of reducing blatant special interest or political purpose fees? Yes. But Prop 26 over-reaches itself and will cause more harm than good.

Well, there we have it, all 9 Propositions on the 2010 November ballot. Sorry for all the text and the long read, it that annoyed you. But I'm glad you worked through it all to meet me back here.

Go vote, and encourage/exhort/brow-beat/whip your friends into voting.

Until next time,
Still paddlin' the old knew...