Tuesday, September 30, 2014

November 2012 Ballot - A Look Back

Prop 28

Currently, members of the CA State Senate are allowed to serve for a maximum of 8 years. Prop 28 would increase that to 12 years.

If a State Assembly member finishes his term and then serves a full term in the State Senate, he will have served a total of 14 years. Prop 28 would reduce the total number of years a politician can serve in the state legislature to 12 years. In short, the bill decreases the number of years a politician can serve, while, at the same time, increasing it. Or vice versa.

That's the bill. How you will vote on it depends on your feelings about term limits. The proponents of Prop 28 say that, with the current system,  "the only way legislators can complete their lifetime limit is to move from office to office" forcing legislators to start fundraising for the next office as soon as they are elected. This bill, they claim, would allow them to focus on their job serving their current constituents.

The bill is sponsored by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce (strange bedfellows?). The backers includes a bunch of real estate magnates, several of whom have large development projects up for review by the legislature.

Prop 28 is opposed by the California Republican Party, who point out that the initiative will actually extend term limits for members of the Assembly, because they will be able to serve 12 instead of 6 years in that office. For this reason they have sued to change the official summary which, in their opinion, leads voters to believe the bill will do the opposite.

Your Political Friend has never been a fan of term limits. While entrenched career politicians can be a serious problem, voters should be able to elect, and keep, whomever they like. Term limits just force out the good along with the bad.

Your Political Friend is voting Yes.

Prop 29

The Legislative Analyst's Office projects that Prop 29 would generate about $735 million a year in new tax revenues. About 60% of the money would go to research, with the remainder funding prevention programs and loans for facilities and equipment. No more than 2% could go to administration.

Prop 29 was put on the ballot by a variety of Cancer related organizations, including Lance Armstrong's LiveStrong and the American Cancer Society. Together, the two have spent nearly $7 million on the campaign. It is opposed by (wait for it...) Philip Morris, the California Republican Party, and Grover Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform.

Your Political Friend is generally against "Ballot Box Budgeting" measures like this one, in which voters are asked to dedicate tax dollars for a particular cause, usually to the detriment of all others. If only the funds went into the General Fund, Prop 29 would be an easy choice. Another concern is that the bill provides little oversight of the distribution of these funds, so some of the money would undoubtedly go to politically connected organizations regardless of merit. What is more, there is no stipulation that the money be spent in California, so the benefit to our economy is not guaranteed.

On the other hand Prop 29 creates it's own revenue stream. The money it provides would not come at the expense of the general budget. Also, it is a tax that need not be paid by everyone. Smoking is, ultimately, optional- people quit all the time. By raising the price of cigarettes, Prop 29 would have the immediate effect of discouraging smokers to continue destroying their own bodies and the health of those around them. More importantly, it would discourage teenagers from becoming smokers in the first place.

As noted above, it would be nice if the committee created to distribute the funds had some government oversight. There is no doubt that much of the money raised by the initiative will be squandered due to fraud and abuse. But, unless you're a smoker, why should you care?

The tobacco industry is spending $40 million to convince us that this is a dangerous proposition. That alone should be enough reason to support the measure.

Your Political Friend is voting YES.

Prop 30

Prop 30 would temporarily increase the state sales tax rate by 1/4 cent, as well as raise the personal income tax on incomes over $250K. The sales tax increase would last four years, while the personal income tax increase would last seven. The additional revenues raised by the initiative would be dedicated to public education, with 89% of the funds allocated to K-12 schools, and the remainder going to community colleges.

Last June the state legislature passed a budget that assumes Prop 30 will pass. If Prop 30 fails, the $6 Billion it would have provided will instead be cut from the budget. This means, voters must pass the initiative or the schools will see drastic cuts to existing programs.

Your Political Friend is voting YES.

Prop 31
Prop 31 has three main points. First, it restricts the Legislature’s ability to pass certain bills that increase state costs or decrease revenues unless new funding sources and/or spending reductions are identified. Second, it expands local government’s control over the disposition of property taxes, provided they participate in state programs to coordinate their public services. Third, it grants the Governor expanded budget control while requiring additional public oversight and audit of state budgets. I’ll try to explain these three below:

1) The measure would require any bills and amendments be available to the public for three days before the Legislature may vote on them. This could cut down on some of the back-room, Friday night deals that often appear in legislation. That is a good thing.

2) Instead of being written every year, the state budget would shift to a two-year cycle, which would help avoid the wild fluctuations we see in the budget when revenues go from good to bad. That is also a good thing.
3) Under current law, the Governor may declare a fiscal emergency and call the Legislature into a special session to propose changes to the budget. However, if the Legislature fails to act, there is little the Governor can do. Prop 31 would grant the Governor the ability to reduce General Fund spending, but not by more than is required to balance the budget. That is a maybe good thing.

4) The measure requires the legislature to offset spending increases of more than $25 million with spending reductions and/or revenue increases. The requirement applies to bills that create or expand new state departments or programs, or create state-mandated local programs. Prop 31 would also require the Legislature to show how bills that decrease state taxes or other revenues by more than $25 million in any fiscal year would be paid for with spending reductions, revenue increases, or both. Paying as we go is a great thing, but this part of the measure is troublesome because it exempts spending that is required by the Constitution or federal law—such as education, debt service, pension contributions, and some health and social services programs. These make up the vast majority of state spending. That is bad thing.

5) Finally, under this measure, local governments will be able to create their own plans how they provide state funded services to the public. These services may include economic development, education, social services, public safety, and public health, so long as they are “functionally equivalent” to the objectives of the existing state law. As an added incentive, the measure offers participating counties additional control over the disposition of property taxes, as well as a bigger portion of sales tax revenues. That sounds okay, but it is a mystery why it is here at all. What services are we talking about? Is this the real reason California Forward put the prop on the ballot? It's one of those clauses that makes you hesitate signing the contract.

Despite all the great stuff, the last two parts should give one pause. Your Political Friend is voting NO, but hoping for a cleaner prop to come along soon.

Prop 32

Prop 32 would prohibit unions, corporations, government contractors, and state and local government employers from spending money deducted from an employee’s paycheck for “political purposes.” Of course, corporations and contractors do not use payroll deductions for their political contributions. Unions do. This initiative is only meant to hurt them.

Your Political Friend is all in favor of efforts to remove money from politics, but Prop 32 isn't really about doing that. The measure will not add any transparency to the political process, nor will it prevent "special interests" from corrupting our democracy. It will, however, further increase the disparity between the voice of workers, as represented by unions, and the powerful influence of corporations on our government.

Your Political Friend is voting NO.

Prop 33

As it is, insurance companies can base their premiums on three main factors: (1) the insured's driving safety record, (2) the number of miles they drive each year, and (3) the number of years they have been driving. In addition insurance companies may provide discounts to individuals for being long-term customers. They are prohibited, however, from offering this discount to new customers who switch to them from other insurers.

According to the official summary, Prop 33 will "allow an insurance company to offer a 'continuous coverage' discount on automobile insurance policies to new customers who switch their coverage from another insurer."

So, did Mercury Insurance write Prop 33 so they could lure the more desirable customers away from other companies? Probably.

Well, that, and raise fees on drivers who do not have a history of continuous insurance coverage. This means that any driver who has had a break in coverage for more than 90 days in the last 5 years will pay a higher premium. It does not matter why you had a break in coverage - you sold your car, you worked abroad, you were in the hospital - you will pay more to restart your policy.

Voters rejected this same measure in June 2010. So Mercury Insurance, the majority source of funding for this measure, has reintroduced it with one tweak: it grants an exemption to people who’s lapse in coverage was due to military service. USA! USA!

Opponents call it a surcharge. Mercury Insurance calls it a discount. One thing is certain, it will result in more uninsured drivers on the road. This will cause premiums for all drivers to go up. And so, the cycle of profit continues.

Your Political Friend is voting NO.

Prop 34

Prop 34 would repeal the death penalty in California and replace it with life imprisonment without possibility of parole. The measure would also require that those inmates work while imprisoned and have their wages garnished for victim restitution fines or orders against them.

The Legislative Analyst estimates that repealing the death penalty will save the state about $130 million per year. This is because the proceedings that follow a death sentence can take 20 years to complete, during which the state incurs millions in court costs.

The theory that the death penalty deters future crimes is a controversial one, as is the belief that it serves as a morally just punishment. However, there is a much better questions that any supporter of capital punishment should ask themselves: "Do I believe that our justice system is infallible?" In other words, do you believe that only guilty people are convicted? A simple review of death row exonerations, many due to previously unavailable DNA evidence, proves that some convictions have been in error. That means that we are executing innocent people. Now ask yourself, "Can I support a system that kills even one innocent person?"

Your Political Friend is voting YES.

Prop 35

Prop 35 would do several things. First, it would expand the definition of human trafficking to include the production or distribution of child pornography. It would also increase the penalties for all types of human trafficking. The maximum prison sentence for labor trafficking would increase from the current 5 or 8 years (depending on whether a minor is involved) to 12 years. For sex trafficking, it would increase from 5 or 8 years to a maximum of 20 years for adults or life in prison if a minor is involved. If the victim suffered bodily injury, an additional 10 years could be added to the sentence (currently it's only five). For each prior conviction, a defendant could also have an additional 5 years tacked on to the sentence. And anyone convicted of human trafficking would now be required to register as a sex offender.

Prop 35 would protect victims as well. First, a person could not be prosecuted for criminal sexual conduct, such as prostitution, if he or she committed the crime while a victim of human trafficking. Nor could a person's sexual conduct be used to discredit them in court proceedings.
Everything about Prop 35 seems right and reasonable, but for one exception- it has no business being on the ballot. Human trafficking is already illegal. We, the voters, don't know how great the problem is, nor do we know whether harsher punishments are necessary. That is the bailiwick of criminal experts and prosecutors, judges and law enforcement. Not voters.

The legislature could pass this bill without the slightest controversy. Instead, California Against Slavery and the Safer California Foundation have placed this on the ballot, bypassing the legislature with what is no doubt a vanity project for Facebook millionaire, Chris Kelly, who likely has political ambitions.

There is no doubt that Prop 35 will pass, as it allows voters to feel that they are striking a blow against people who commit the terrible crime of human trafficking. Unfortunately, this is a vote that should be happening in an open legislature, not a closed voting booth.

Your Political Friend is voting NO.

Prop 37

Prop 37 would require foods containing genetically modified (GMO) ingredients to be labeled. It exempts foods that are certified organic (organic standards already exclude GMOs), sold for immediate consumption such as in a restaurant, made from animals fed GMOs but not genetically modified themselves, and alcoholic beverages.

It would also prohibit the labeling of advertising of such foods as "natural". This is a big deal. In the United States, the word "natural" has had no legal meaning. Twinkies can be called "all-natural".

The opposition to this measure is huge- paid for by corporations like Monsanto, Cargill, and processed junk food companies like PepsiCo and Nestle. They would have you believe that Prop 37 bans GMOs, or would increase food costs. In reality, these companies know that GMOs have a bad connotation in the average consumer's mind, and any label admitting to such contents would be marketing suicide. If that is the case, then they should set about educating the public on the safety of GMOs, not hiding their presence in the food they sell.

There are several studies which show that GMOs are perfectly safe for consumption. My personal objection to them is more environmental (they increase the use of pesticides) and economic (they increase the patenting of life forms, driving small farmers worldwide to bankruptcy).

Unfortunately, Prop 37 has one flaw, and it's a major flaw. The measure makes retailers, not manufacturers, responsible for making sure that foods are properly labeled. This means that your local market, not Kellogg's or General Foods, must prepare stacks of documents verifying the ingredients of the foods they sell. If they don't, they will be open to lawsuits by any individual citizen or group. It will be a boon for lawyers, but a nightmare for everyone else.

I should disclose that I have donated money to the Yes on 37 campaign. I volunteered to gather signatures early on in the effort. That is why it pains me so much to vote against this prop. We, as consumers, have the right to know what is in our food. However, the retailers shouldn't bear the burden of verifying everything on the labels of the foods they sell.

Your Political Friend is voting NO.

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