California Propositions

| Sun Oct. 26, 2008 1:02 PM EDT

CALIFORNIA PROPOSITIONS....This is a special post for California readers. The rest of you may safely go about your Sunday business normally.

This year we have 12 initiatives on the California ballot. As longtime readers know, my default position is to very strongly oppose all initiatives. My reasons are here, but the nickel version is that (a) most initiatives these days are funded by corporate interests, not the grassroots, and corporate interests don't really need yet another avenue to work their will on the public, (b) generally speaking, laws should be laws, not constitutional amendments or initiative statutes, where they're essentially etched in stone forever, and (c) ballot box budgeting is a curse.

At the request of my wife, I'll add one other thing: I've routinely voted against not just initiatives, but also against virtually all bond measures for the past couple of decades. Here's why. In the distant past, bond measures were used for capital projects that needed a big dollop of funding right away even though their useful life was decades long. But that's barely ever the case anymore. Rather, they've become little more than ways to evade the normal budgeting process. Most of the time they fund projects that will take a long time to build and could just as easily (and more cheaply) be funded out of general revenues. What's more, the standard mantra that they "require no tax increase" is baloney: they allocate money and that money (plus interest) has to be paid back out of the general fund. This money comes from taxes, just like every other expenditure.

Obviously you might not share my generic distaste for both the initiative process and the abuse of bond funding. So take that into account as you read the rest of this post. And a note for my non-California readers, since I always get a few questions about this. Several of the initiatives on the ballot this year (4, 8, 9, and 11) are constitutional amendments, and yes, a simple majority vote is all it takes to amend the state constitution here. I know it seems weird, but that's the way it is.

  1. High-speed rail bond. NO. As I said above, I generally oppose bond measures. But high speed rail is a worthy long-term endeavor, so I should probably explain my opposition to this particular bond issue in some detail. Here it is: We. Don't. Have. Any. Money.

    I continue to be flabbergasted at the unwillingness of Californians to understand just how bad our fiscal situation is. It's mind boggling. We've been running huge deficits for the past six years even though the economy was booming. The coming recession is only going to make it worse. We just flatly can't afford this right now.

    On its merits, I'll confess to some skepticism too. Both the cost projections and the ridership projections for the planned 220 mph train from LA to San Francisco strike me as typically optimistic for these things (as does the 220 mph goal, frankly), and I really have to wonder if we don't have better ways to spend a billion or two a year on transit projects. But those are side issues that would only be worth discussing if we had the money to support this in the first place. We don't.

  2. Farm Animal Confinement. YES. This initiative requires that farm animals be penned in cages that allow them to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs, and turn around freely. In practice, it would affect only the egg industry, and it moves California very moderately in the direction of more humane treatment of farm animals. The factory farming industry is running the usual campaign claiming that it would put California farmers out of business entirely, but that dog just won't hunt anymore. That's what they always say. In reality, it will probably increase the cost of eggs a few pennies per dozen and nothing more.

    This initiative passes most of my smell tests too. It's a genuine grassroots initiative that would have a hard time getting past the legislature thanks to corporate agribusiness lobbying. It's a moderately written law that allows us to experiment a bit without going off a cliff. And it's not ballot box budgeting.

  3. Children's hospital bond act. NO. We. Don't. Have. Any. Money. Even for good causes, I'm afraid. This is an issue for the legislature, not for ballot box budgeting.

  4. Parental notification for teenage abortions. NO. I think we all know what this is about.

  5. Nonviolent drug offenses. NO. This is a followup to Prop 36, which was passed in 2000 and mandates treatment for many drug offenses instead of jail time. Unfortunately, as with many initiatives, Prop 5 is mostly well intentioned but poorly drafted. Thanks to fuzzy wording, it might allow violent criminals to evade jail time merely by claiming that their crimes were in the service of a drug habit, and it might cripple some of the state's most successful rehabilitation programs. These are risks that might be worth taking if this were merely a normal law, which could be modified if it didn't work out, but as an initiative statute it would be set in stone virtually forever no matter how well it worked. That's a bad deal.

  6. Police and law enforcement funding. NO. This is yet another "tough on crime" initiative, something that California is already overburdened with. It's also an egregious example of ballot box budgeting, in which law enforcement tries to mandate more funding for itself. Forget it.

  7. Renewable energy generation. NO. As near as I can tell, Prop 7 is genuinely well meaning. But as with Prop 5, it's badly drafted and would actually hurt many suppliers of alternative energy, which is why virtually every environmental organization opposes it.

  8. Bans same-sex marriage. NO. I think gay marriage is perfectly fine. If you do too, vote No on 8. Nuff said.

  9. "Marsy's law." NO. This is yet another pet project from a local zillionaire with a bee up his bonnet. But Prop 9 is mostly unnecessary, and to the extent it offers anything new it's just another generic "get tough" initiative that will cost a bucket of money, keep our prisons even more overcrowded, and prevent defense attorneys from doing legitimate parts of their job. What's more, even if you approve of this kind of thing, it certainly doesn't deserve to be engraved in stone and put in the constitution.

  10. T. Boone Pickens alternative energy bond. NO. This is basically just a stealth initiative to funnel some government cash into the hands of T. Boone Pickens. See here for more. Also: We. Don't. Have. Any. Money.

  11. Redistricting reform. YES. On the downside, this initiative is a little bit squirrelly, setting up an oddball "citizen commission" to perform redistricting every ten years. It's also not clear that it would have a huge impact. I used to be a big foe of gerrymandering, but I've read enough research over the past couple of years to convince me that its impact on the electoral process is actually fairly modest.

    Still, "modest" isn't zero. And while the citizen commission is a little odd, it's not outlandish and not obviously biased against either party. What's more, Prop 11 is a limited effort that affects only state districts, not congressional districts. Bottom line: Whether the effect is modest or not, allowing partisan legislatures to draw their own lines is crazy. We've missed a lot of chances to reform this in the past, and overall Prop 11 strikes me as a decent start on a difficult task.

  12. Cal-Vet bonds. YES. Huh? I'm recommending Yes on a bond? Yep. We've been issuing Cal-Vet home loan bonds for decades, they genuinely don't cost the taxpayers anything (the bonds are paid back by the vets who get the loans), and it's for a good cause.