Advancing a Free Society

California's Ballots: If's, And's...and Butts

Thursday, May 17, 2012

I just voted in California’s June 5 primary.

No, that’s not a typo.

About 58% of all primary ballots in the Golden State pending election are so-called “vote by mail”, a fancier way of saying “absentee ballot”. Call it California’s special way of decision-making, with a Netflix twist.

A scintillating ballot, it’s not. The Republican presidential race is long over; Dianne Feinstein’s quest for a fifth U.S. Senate win has all the drama of an old-style Soviet election.

Still, there’s a stopping point on the ballot that says oodles about the voters’ zeitgeist: Proposition 28 & 29.

Let’s take them, in numerical order.

Prop 28 would alter California’s term-limits law. Instead of the current 14-year limit (at max, three two-year terms in the State Assembly and two four-year stints in the State Senate), the new limit would be 12 years in the State Legislature.

The tradeoff: lawmakers could spend the entire time in one of the chambers, thus either doubling their Assembly tenure or adding an extra 50% to their Senate career.

Will voters go along with the change? Since Proposition 140 was approved in 1990 and California state legislative term limits went into effect, two ballot measures have sought to amend the restrictions. Prop 45, which was trounced back in 2002, would have enabled termed-out lawmakers to serve an extra four years in Sacramento – if their constituents submitted enough petitions to put them on the ballot. A second “reform” bid – 2008’s Prop 93 – would have granted legislators an extra four to six years’ stay. It lost by a more modest 7%.

So why believe the third time’s a charm for changing the law? Arguably (and I’m not saying it’s gonna happen):

1)  Clever Labeling. Prop 28’s title – “Limits on Legislators’ Terms” – should appeal to anti-Sacramento voters, even if the measure rewards legislators by giving them newfound flexibility within the Legislature.

2)  Generational Change? Take a look here at the 15 states with state legislative term limits. The last one to join the “movement” – Nebraska – did so in 2000. California’s choice (only Arkansas and Michigan have the same 14-year limits; the other state opted for 16-24-year caps) came 22 years ago. Maybe the concept’s still au currant; then again, when’s he last time you listened to Milli Vanilli?

3)  A Way to Vent. A great political murder mystery these days: “Who Killed California’s Political Process?” Prop 28 will appeal to those who think the prime suspects are greenhorn legislators who, thanks to their limited time on the job, make unwise decisions and are unduly dominated by special interests.

This much we know. Thanks to term limits, California’s legislative bodies are less white and less male than they were a generation ago. Ironically, they’re also more prone to a political mindset in that two-thirds of Assembly members now come from local government, compared to less than one-third back in 1990 (the good news: the number of state senators with law degrees fell from 39% to 21%).

Something else we know: 20 years ago, then-Gov. Pete Wilson had to solve a California budget meltdown. His dance partner: then-Assembly Speaker Willie Brown – he of 25 years in the Assembly (the chamber’s “Ayatollah”) and a decade as Speaker.

In 2012, Gov. Jerry Brown’s budgetary dance partners are Senate President Pro Tem Darrell (yet to complete his first Senate term, though he is an Assembly veteran) and Assembly Speaker John Perez, a former labor union official elected Speaker in his first Assembly term.

Which governor would you rather be?

Which leads us to the other measure on the ballot: Proposition 29.

If approved, Prop 29 would add another $1 to California’s cigarette tax (currently 87 cents a pack), with the proceeds going to cancer research and smoking-reduction programs.

In 1999, California had the nation’s third-highest tobacco; today, it’s now the 33rd most stringent.

As with the term limits debates, it’s political déjà vu for Golden State voters: back in 2006, Californians narrowly rejected Prop 86, which would have imposed an additional $2.60 per-pack tax.

Unlike the companion ballot measure, Prop 29 isn’t a referendum on Sacramento. But it does pertain to the State Capitol in this regard: as Prop 29 goes, perhaps so too does so Gov. Brown’s hopes for convincing Californians to sign off of a tax-hike initiative of his own design later this fall.

Figure it this way: the folks behind Prop 29 haven’t shied away from pushing emotional buttons. Ads like this one have featured cancer victims and somber music; from the beginning, one the world’s most famous cancer survivors, Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, has been a pro-29 pitchman.

Countering the emotional sell: the “no” campaign’s warnings of additional bureaucracy, and revenue that won’t be reinvested in California (here’s an example – btw, the doctor featured in this ad was subsequently booted from a state medical panel). In other words: boilerplate conservative talking points that, historically at least, have been effective in tax initiative fights.

What should concern Gov. Brown and every Sacramento Democrat who dreams of the tax hike as a means of avoiding further spending cuts: if an initiative campaign that showcases the very human tragedy of a dreaded disease and, in no uncertain terms, demonizes Big Tobacco can’t get 50% of the vote in (for the most part) health-conscious and (for the most part) smoke-free California? What say that about the three tax hikes headed voters’ way this fall?

As the other Jerry (Seinfeld, not Brown) would say: Good luck with all that.