This is a special post for California readers. The rest of you may safely ignore it.
This year we have 17 initiatives on the California ballot. As longtime readers know, my default position is to oppose all initiatives. Here's the nickel version of a longer rant about this: (1) 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; (2) generally speaking, laws should be laws, not constitutional amendments or initiative statutes, where they're essentially etched in stone forever; and (3) ballot box budgeting is a curse. So keep my biases in mind as you read this.
It's worth noting that my dislike of initiatives softens a bit when there's no choice in the matter. We Californians have passed a ton of initiatives in the past, and since that etches them in stone (see No. 2, supra) it means that the only way to change them is via another initiative. I don't like it, but that's life. I'm mentioning this because several of this year's initiatives fall into this category, and they account for several of my Yes recommendations.
$9 billion school bond. YES. This is pretty routine stuff—though a little less routine than usual due to school funding fights between the Legislature and the governor. Still, unless you have a serious problem with the fact that $500 million of this money would go to charter schools, there's no big reason to oppose it.
Except for one: California doesn't really need more debt, and I continue to be unsure why stuff like this can't be funded out of general revenues instead of bonds. That's an argument for another day, but for some people it might be reason enough to oppose Prop 51.
Hospital fees. NO. A few years ago, California created a new hospital fee that raised $4.6 billion per year. Of this, $900 million went to the general fund and $3.7 billion went to our Medicaid program. Prop 52 would make it much harder to divert any of the money from this fee to the general fund. I'm in favor of generously funding Medicaid, but I'm very much opposed to ballot-box budgeting. The Legislature's job is to decide how money is spent, and they should be left free to do so. If you don't like it, vote them out of office.
Voter approval for revenue bonds over $2 billion. NO. I'm generally opposed to the whole initiative process in the first place, so why would I want to extend it further?
Three-day wait before voting on bills. YES. This initiative mandates that (a) bills be published 72 hours before they're voted on, (b) all open legislative proceedings be recorded and put online within 24 hours, and (c) anyone can record open legislative proceedings for themselves. Opponents say this would mostly benefit special interests, who would have more time to gin up opposition to bills before they're passed at the last minute. That may be. It's also true that this initiative is the pet project of a local zillionaire. And yet, this stuff all seems like a fairly modest stab at transparency in legislating—and it's certainly nothing that the Democrats in charge of things will ever pass on their own. In the end, it's hard to think of any persuasive, nonpartisan reason to object to it.
Extension of income tax increase. NO. In 2012, California passed an initiative that temporarily raised a variety of taxes on the wealthy in order to increase funding to schools. Prop 55 would extend this tax through 2030, essentially making it permanent.
This smells too much like a bait-and-switch for my taste. The state budget was in a mess four years ago, and this tax was arguably necessary. That's not true today, and permanently relying on taxes from the very rich makes state revenue extremely volatile. We need a better, more stable tax structure, and that might include higher taxes on the rich. But a patch like this, which was meant to be temporary, deserves to be allowed to die.
$2 cigarette tax. NO. California's cigarette tax is quite low, and a higher tax would certainly help to reduce cigarette use and improve public health. I'd vote yes on this in a heartbeat except for one thing: Virtually all the revenue is allocated to a miscellaneous set of very specific programs. I've had enough of this. Just put the damn revenue into the general fund. The curse of ballot-box budgeting needs to end.
Early parole for nonviolent offenders. YES. California is under a federal order to reduce its prison population. This initiative would modestly help us reach that goal by providing incentives for nonviolent inmates to qualify for early parole.
Repeal of Prop 227. YES. In 1998, California passed an initiative that eliminated bilingual education and mandated that all children be taught in English-only classes. This was a perfect example of a stupid initiative. Even if it's good policy, it's a terrible thing to carve into stone as part of the constitution. Repeal it and let the Legislature and local school districts deal with this.
"Advisory question" to overturn Citizens United. NO. The initiative process is not designed for you to send feel-good messages out to the universe. This "advisory question" is a waste of everyone's time, and the last thing we should do is encourage others to fill up the ballot with junk like this. If you want to overturn Citizens United, vote for a president who will nominate Supreme Court justices likely to do so.
Condoms in porn films. NO. This is probably a bad measure on the merits, but that hardly matters. It's something for the Legislature to deal with. In no way does it rise to the level of something that should be decided by initiative.
Prescription drug price regulation. NO. Prop 61 mandates that the state of California cannot buy prescription drugs at a price higher than that paid by the Department of Veterans Affairs, which is widely believed to get the best price around. The opposition claims this would cause drug companies to charge the VA more, thus hurting vets. This is a stretch, and I wouldn't pay too much attention to it.
Unfortunately, the arguments in favor of Prop 61 are tenuous. Although the VA publishes the price it pays for most drugs, the real prices it pays are often lower, thanks to special discounts. This makes it unclear how Prop 61 would be enforced. It's also unclear if it would even save any money. As the legislative analyst points out, giving California Medicaid a lower price would, by federal law, entitle all state Medicaid programs to the same price. One way or another, drug companies would do something to maintain their current pricing and profitability—and there's no telling who would pay the price for this.
This initiative is my toughest call. I like the idea of reducing drug prices. But doing it on a piecemeal basis like this runs real risks of unintended consequences—all while also running a risk of not even accomplishing its goal. In this case, my bias against initiatives has the final say: Prop 61 is too ambiguous to be written into stone. It might be a good legislative action, but either way, the Legislature is where it belongs.
Repeal the death penalty. YES. This is exactly what it sounds like, and you hardly need my advice on what to do. I'm not personally opposed to the death penalty on moral grounds, but I've long been convinced that in practice it simply can't be applied fairly. And it doesn't really do any good, anyway. I'm happy to get rid of it.
Background checks for ammunition purchasers. NO. For a long time there's been a competition of sorts between Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom and Senate leader Kevin de León over who can be the king of gun control. This summer, de León passed several gun control bills, including ones that (a) ban possession of large-capacity magazines and (b) require sellers of ammunition to make sure that buyers are not prohibited persons. Newsom's Prop 63 was already on the ballot when the legislation passed, and it largely duplicates it with only a modest bit of tightening. Since I always prefer a legislative solution to an initiative, if possible, I think it's best to let the new laws do their job. Prop 63 just doesn't do enough to be worth an initiative at this point.
Marijuana legalization. YES. This initiative is pretty straightforward, legalizing the cultivation and sale of marijuana. I'd rather have the Legislature do this, but there are just too many incentives working against them to ever get this done. I'd also prefer the revenue from Prop 64's taxes to be allocated to the general fund, but I guess we can't have everything.
Plastic bag revenue. NO. In a typical California clusterfuck, this initiative is designed to change the ballot-box budgeting in Prop 67 to a different kind of ballot-box budgeting. This is ridiculous. Just vote no.
Death penalty procedures. NO. This would supersede Prop 62, which repeals the death penalty.
Plastic bag ban. YES. This is a referendum on a legislative measure that bans single-use plastic bags. To be honest, I don't care very much about plastic bags, but lots of cities and counties have already banned them, and it's probably a good idea to have a single statewide policy. And since it's an ordinary legislative measure, it can be changed later if it needs to be.