California Propositions

| Tue Jun. 1, 2010 9:00 AM EDT

[Update: Looking for a guide to the California Propositions on November's ballot? Click the link!]

This is a special post for California readers. The rest of you may safely ignore it.

There are five initiatives on the California ballot next Tuesday. As longtime readers know, my default position is to very strongly oppose all initiatives (reasons here), so keep this bias in mind as you read this. For what it's worth, though, the only ballot measure this bias might affect even slightly this year is Prop 14. The other two NO votes are completely solid regardless of what you think about initiatives in general.

  1. Seismic retrofits: YES. The original Proposition 13, passed in 1978, froze annual property reassessments for existing buildings. New construction was supposed to be assessed at the time it was finished, but in 1984 Proposition 23 created a 15-year exemption for seismic retrofits of "unreinforced masonry buildings." In 1990, Proposition 127 exempted seismic retrofits entirely but didn't remove the 15-year limit for unreinforced masonry buildings. I have no idea why, and the five minutes of googling I was willing to apply to this question didn't provide an answer.

    This year's Proposition 13 (it's just a coincidence that it has the same number as the original) would exempt all seismic retrofits completely. It was approved unanimously by one of the most famously partisan legislatures in the country and the voter guide doesn't even have an argument against it — which is pretty remarkable given that even the most innocuous initiatives usually prompt an argument from at least one wingnut group or another. So go ahead and vote for this. It seems harmless.

  2. Open Primaries: NO. This initiative would create an open primary system: instead of separate primaries for Republicans and Democrats, there would be only a single comprehensive primary and the top two vote getters would proceed to the general election even if they're from the same party. Supposedly this would produce more moderate candidates — though the evidence for this is pretty slim — but even if it did, I've always been pretty uneasy about open primaries. If political parties are to have any meaning at all, they have to be allowed to pick their own candidates and they have to be allowed to contest general elections. This is especially true for third parties, which would be shut out of general elections almost entirely by Prop 14. It should also be clear at all times which party a candidate belongs to, something Prop 14 obscures by allowing candidates not to declare a party. For all its flaws, the current system strikes me as fairer and more transparent than Prop 14's pseudo-runoff system.

  3. Fair Elections Act: YES. This is sort of an interesting little initiative. Basically it's an experiment in public financing of political campaigns: it applies only to one office — Secretary of State — and only to the elections in 2014 and 2018. On January 1st of the following year it automatically disappears for good unless voters decide they like it and want to extend it. It's funded by a tax on lobbyists and requires candidates to raise $5 from 7,500 registered voters in order to qualify for public funding. This might or might not be a good idea, but Prop 15 is the kind of thing we should do more often: experiment. If Prop 15 fails, not much harm is done. If it works, it will have proven itself in the toughest arena of all: real life. It’s a small bore way of allowing voters to find out if they like the idea before committing themselves to a sweeping and permanent change. We could use more initiatives like this.

  4. Municipal Power: NO. This is one of the sleaziest initiatives I've seen in a long time. Here it is in a nutshell: PG&E doesn't like having to compete against municipal power companies, so they're sponsoring an initiative that would prohibit the creation or expansion of any municipal power system without a two-thirds approval from voters. Which, of course, is essentially impossible. And the best part? Municipal agencies aren't allowed to spend public money on political campaigns, so PG&E, which has spent nearly $50 million so far promoting Prop 16, is basically running unopposed.

    Prop 16 is a poster child for everything that's wrong with the initiative process in California, and it's as pure an example as you'll ever find of a big corporation using the ballot box to cynically undercut its competition. Even if there's nothing else on the June ballot you care about, you should make sure to get to your polling place just to vote against Prop 16. Ditto for your family and friends. Your enemies too. Liberals, conservatives, Democrats, Republicans, it doesn't matter: everyone should vote against Prop 16.

  5. Auto Insurance: NO. Most auto insurance companies give you a loyalty discount if you stick with them for several years in a row. Proposition 17 is framed as fixing a "flaw" in California law that prevents you from taking this discount with you when you switch insurers, but that masks the real issue at stake here: should insurance companies be allowed to give you a discount merely for being insured continuously? Or, put another way: Should insurance companies be allowed to penalize you if you drop your insurance for a period of time (perhaps because you sell your car, or sign up for hitch in the Army, for example) and then later re-apply?

    Proposition 103, passed in 1988, was designed to stop insurers from basing their rates on factors unrelated to the likelihood of filing a claim (where you live, for example, or your income). To accomplish this, Prop 103 mandates that insurers consider only three factors: your driving record, the number of miles you drive, and the number of years of driving experience you have. The insurance commissioner can approve other factors as well, but only if they bear a substantial relationship to the risk of loss.

    Continuous coverage doesn't qualify on that score. This isn't a flaw in the law, it's the whole point of the law. (Loyalty discounts are a little questionable on this score too, but it turns out that they do correlate with driving safety, so they're allowed.) Mercury Insurance, which has been fighting this battle for years, is pretty much the sole sponsor of Proposition 17, and their motivation is simple: they think it would help them poach more business from other insurers. And it might! But it would do so by lowering rates for some and raising them for others based on a factor that has nothing to do with the likelihood of filing a claim. We decided to put a stop to that two decades ago, and I don't see any reason to change it now.