Thursday, October 11, 2012

Nov. 2012 California proposition recommendations

(Updated with election results in blue).

This set of propositions is a little more difficult than some, with fewer easy choices. I think they’re getting too loaded up with details, and often it’s those details that turn decent measures into flawed ones, at which point it becomes a question of whether it’s too flawed to vote for. For example, it’s not enough to close a corporate tax loophole; the money brought in must be assigned to a couple of random “good causes” for years to come. It’s not enough to end the death penalty; you have to make convicted murderers work to give money to their victims’ families, just to show you’re not soft on crime.

Also, why is there nothing fun on the ballot? L.A. County gets to vote on whether porn actors have to wear condoms.

(They do.  And there will be official county penis inspectors to make sure they do.)

Prop. 30. Jerry Brown’s tax increases. Raises income taxes for those earning $250,000+, which is fine, but includes a regressive ¼% increase in the sales tax, which is not. It all goes to education (K-12 & community colleges, not Cal State or UC), which is more of that ballot-box budgeting that’s helped make the state’s budgeting process so intractable.

Or it would be if the claim that this money goes to education weren’t nonsense: the extra $6b/year 30 would bring in would fund only around 15% of education spending; the other 85% would remain as dependent as ever on Sacramento politics. The “it all goes to the schools” argument (or as Jerry Brown subtly put it, “taking money from the most blessed and giving it to the schools”) is essentially meaningless. For all practical purposes, the money doesn’t really go to education, it goes into the general fund. The general fund needs more money, and schools really will suffer if it doesn’t get it (as will parks, health programs and a lot of other things).

By the way, the “guaranteed local public safety funding” in the prop’s title is about jails and parole officers. It does not, as the Yes argument says, “keep cops on the street.”

If Prop. 38 passes and 30 fails, or if they both pass but 38 has more votes, the trigger cuts (“Vote for this or the kid gets it”) which the Legislature put into the current budget go into effect anyway. In other words, they’re ok with ballot-box budgeting, but only if we give them the answer they want. Feel manipulated and blackmailed yet?

On this prop, I’m not going to give you a recommendation. I understand that without some sort of tax increase, California turns into Mississippi and our schools will have dirt floors and no windows by the end of the decade, but I don’t vote for taxes that fall more heavily on the poor than the rich, like the sales tax increase here. And it leaves the state’s budget process as dysfunctional as ever.

(Wins with 54%.  I thought it would be closer.  Brown put a lot of whatever credibility he has on the line for this – and without even being forced to part with his beloved Bullet Train to Nowhere – so it had better work exactly as he said it would.)

Prop. 31. The budget. Two-year budgets; governors can ignore the Legislature and cut budgets by themselves during “fiscal emergencies”; new spending has to be offset; allows local governments to ignore some state laws and regulations in administering state programs.

Two-year budgeting would be good. 3 days’ notice before bills are voted on would be good. Seriously, next election let’s have initiatives just for those two things. The other provisions here are the problem. Governors should not have that much budget power. The bit about spending (and tax cuts) being offset with new taxes (which is impossible in the current environment) or cuts in other parts of the budget may sound reasonable, but it’s intended to cap spending, even when the economy improves or the population grows, and turns each budget item into a monumental turf battle, making the budget process just that much more Hunger Games-y. It’s the total budget that’s supposed to be balanced, not every single line item in the budget.

How you feel about the local government part (they would be allowed to spend state and sales tax funds according to locally produced “plans” with their own priorities) may depend on what you think about your city council. This feels like some sort of power-grab to me, since it’s cheaper and easier to buy off city councils than the entire state government. Do you trust your city council with the power to override state environmental laws when approving big box stores? We have a state government for a reason, even if it’s sometimes difficult to remember what that reason is. This provision also seems like a formula for complicated legal battles.


(Lost badly, more than 60% against.  Given the multiple moving parts of this one, I’m not sure what caused voters to balk.)

Prop. 32. Bans unions’ payroll-deductions being spent on political campaigns. Also some provisions about corporate spending in order to look even-handed, but the even-handedness consists of banning both things that unions do and things corporations do not do. For example, corporations could still pour millions of dollars into propositions exactly like this one and run all the commercials currently on your tv, and Mercury Insurance could continue to put propositions on our ballot every two years like the very next one. “Corporations” is also narrowly defined to exclude many types of, you know, corporations, and 32 doesn’t regulate the ways in which corporations actually use money to influence politics these days, such as PACs.

Union members should not be forced to contribute to politicians they disagree with. And indeed they aren’t: they can opt out under current law. This is a solution without a problem. It is dishonest and lopsided.

Vote No.

(In the ballot arguments, both sides say they are against Special Interests. Just in case you were wondering. The public face of this corporate power-grab seems to consist largely of people with grudges against teachers unions, by the way.)

(Lost, 56% against.  Do the voters love unions or hate expensive deceptive campaigns?)

Prop. 33. Allows auto insurance companies to jack up rates for people who haven’t had continuous insurance.

Why, yes, you did vote on this exact thing just 2 years and 4 months ago. Can we assume that Mercury Insurance did not pay millions to put this on the ballot out of a philanthropic impulse to reduce everyone’s rates? I think we can.

Vote No.

(Loses, 54.6% against, which is more than Mercury’s last attempt at this failed two years ago, when I wrote, It’s almost like people don’t think insurance companies are on their side and just want to charge them less.)

Prop. 34. Death penalty repeal.

Well, you probably know what you think about the death penalty as a moral issue, although interestingly the Yes ballot argument doesn’t even attempt to make a moral case against the death penalty in the ballot arguments; even a quote from a Catholic bishop is only about executions of innocent people. Instead, the Yes argument is all, as the No argument amusingly puts it, about “misleading terms like innocence, solving crimes and saving money.” But where the Yes side puts the case entirely in those practical terms, the No people don’t talk about deterrence or whatever, but the least healthy reason for having a death penalty, vengeance: “DON’T LET GUILTY MURDERERS WIN... Remember the victims”. The No argument claims that life imprisonment is more expensive than the death penalty, which is simply not true, as Pete Wilson certainly knows. And they really hate the ACLU.

Vote Yes to ending the state putting its citizens to death, or I’ll be very disappointed with you all.

(I’m very disappointed with you all.  47.2% voted for abolition.  Incidentally, someone did a survey of people on death row, and it turns out 90+% of them support the death penalty, because they get nice cells all to themselves, computer privileges and whatnot, lawyers filing appeals, and are never executed.)

Prop. 35. Various penalties against “human traffickers.”

Because if there’s one thing Californians hate, it’s traffic.

I have no problem with the provisions of 35 increasing the penalties for some of these crimes. Where it raises serious red flags, though, is in its definition of “human trafficking.” This is already an odd category of crime, covering as it does not only prostitution-related offenses ranging from plain vanilla pimping to actual sexual slavery, but also non-sexual coerced labor. Prop 35 would expand the category to the breaking point. For example it defines making a copy of someone else’s kiddie porn as human trafficking. It’s a catch-all that prosecutors and cops can use as a bludgeon to coerce people into pleading to lesser charges and as such it’s part of the pernicious trend that sees sentences determined not by courts but by which charges career-oriented prosecutors choose to file. I’m not sure if it can really be used against, say, the child a prostitute is putting through college, but it certainly defines as “human traffickers” anyone connected with a sex worker the cops & prosecutors feel like sending to jail. This prop. is too committed to the idea of every sex worker being a victim of some “trafficker,” which of course many are but not all.

I read the act, and it’s full of laundry lists of things that might constitute human trafficking – but might not. For example it legally defines “coercion” to include giving drugs “with the intent to impair the person’s judgment.” This tips the balance of power even further in favor of the police and prosecutors. I’m reminded of a topless protest some years ago by a group called Breasts Not Bombs, where the police threatened to arrest the women and force them to register as sex offenders and possibly take their children away from them. This is the sort of power that always gets abused.

Human trafficking, real human trafficking is already well-covered by existing laws. If you want to address the problem, assign more cops. And catch up DNA-testing rape kits, for crum’s sake.

Here’s a sentence in the ballot pamphlet that could have been better phrased: Prop 35 “Requires human trafficking training for police officers.” Incidentally, that’s a full two hours of training for investigators, because surely everything you need to know about getting information from the traumatized victims of sexual slavery can be taught in two hours including a donut break (did I just make “donut break” sound dirty?). 35’s text includes provides helpful advice to cops on the indicators that human trafficking is present, including fatigue or being withdrawn and afraid to talk to the cops.

The provision about registered sex offenders providing their internet identities to the cops is somewhat worrying (the prop is paid for by a former Facebook privacy officer [!] with political ambitions).

(One of the authors of the No ballot pamphlet argument is the author of the autobiographical book “Cop to Call Girl.”

Another signer of the No argument is named “Starchild.” California is weird.)

At the risk of being on the side of pimps and starchildren, I find the crime of human trafficking to be too ill-defined, designed to give the police and prosecutors discretion that history shows us is likely to be abused. Vote No.

(81% in favor, which to me suggests no one read beyond the words “human trafficking.”)

Prop. 36. Tinkering with Three Strikes by removing life imprisonment if the third strike is non-violent (except when it doesn’t) and unless the first or second strike was for rape, murder or child molesting. So people probably won’t go to prison for life for stealing a slice of pizza in the future.

(If you had “dangerous” or “dangerous criminals” in the drinking game for the No arguments, you are seriously wasted now.)

(Drinking games for reading the voter’s pamphlet is totally a thing, right?)

All in all, a baby step in the direction of sanity, making a bad law somewhat less bad. Vote Yes for baby steps in the direction of sanity.

(More than 2 to 1 in favor.  Maybe some of the crime hysteria is wearing off, at least until the next high-profile crime.)

Prop. 37. Requires labels on genetically modified foods (some GM foods; if there’s a logic behind the GM foods exempted from this requirement, I don’t see it).

We needn’t get into the scientific question of whether GM foods are dangerous to humans or to ecological chains. I don’t know, and neither do you, probably (especially since less research has been done on this than you’d think would have been required, and much of that research has been done by people employed by Monsanto et al). Also, we don’t know how foods might be genetically engineered in the future. So the question isn’t whether this stuff is safe, it’s whether consumers can have information they might wish to have in choosing what to put into their bodies. The biggest flaw with 37 is the many products exempted from it, but nothing in it stops the Legislature from adding those products in the future. Still, more information is always better than no information: vote Yes.

(Loses 53-47.  A huge advertising campaign against it featuring people in lab coats assuring us we don’t actually need to know what’s in our food and that it would somehow cost everyone $400 a year.  In truth, though, it was such a badly drafted measure that I can’t be too sorry it failed.)

Prop. 38. The other tax-increase-ostensibly-but-not-really-for-education proposition.

I complained about the regressive sales tax increase in Prop 30. Well, you can’t say 38’s taxation isn’t progressive, but it also falls on everyone who pays income taxes, no matter how small their income, so it will hit poor families harder than 30 will. Couples earning less than $15,000 a year would see their income tax go up 20%).

It claims the money will be spent on education (except 30% of it, which goes to the debt for the first 4 years out of the 12 the taxes would be in effect), but like Prop. 30 (see above) it would fund a fairly small percentage of the current ed. budget, so by itself it doesn’t really increase ed. spending.

The money raised would be distributed to schools according to the total number of students, the number of poor students, and the grade-level of students. How it is spent is up to school boards with no oversight.

We are assured that Prop. 38 funds would not be used to increase the pay of teachers, because that would be crazy.

If you’re going to vote for either 30 or 38 (don’t vote for both, that would be a mess), vote 30 because it takes a larger percentage of its taxes from the rich and a smaller percentage from the poor. No on 38.

(On the other hand, the Yes argument is signed by Edward James Olmos, aka Admiral Adama. Vote for this or the Cylons win! And did you know that “children are our future”? It’s funny because it’s true.)

(Failed 72-28.)

Prop. 39. Changes how the California tax liability of multi-state corporations is calculated, eliminating their current ability to choose whichever method allows them to pay the least taxes, because revising the tax code is exactly how the voters should be spending their time while the Legislature does whatever the Legislature does.

On the other hand, it was the Legislature (and Arnie) that was stupid enough to give a tax break for corporations that move jobs out of California.

I could do without the ballot-box budgeting provision that assigns the reclaimed taxes (to greening public buildings and education services), regardless of what the state’s priorities might be in years to come, but I guess it’s free money from corporations that we won’t otherwise get, right?

(The authors of the No argument use the term “job creators,” so you know they’re evil.)


(Wins with 60%.  Would probably have done even better if it had been given a more accurate name on the ballot than “Business tax for energy funding).

Prop. 40. The Republicans put this one on the ballot to overturn the new state senate districts, then backed away from it, but here it is anyway. Note that a Yes confirms the districts, a No rejects them (which is a bit confusing, in that the sponsors wanted a No vote).

Although I opposed, and continue to oppose, the proposition that set up the commission we now use to redistrict, it seems to have done a reasonable job, so vote Yes.

(Nobody opposed it and it won with 71%, if you’re wondering what percentage of California voters just vote no on everything.)

Comments, rebuttals, or questions are welcome in comments, although to answer one of your questions now, no I don’t know if Starchild is a boy’s name or a girl’s name.

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  1. I have represented accident victims against Mercury Insurance. They are a pernicious organization that profiteers off denial of legitimate benefits that policyholders paid for. Ms Hooper ought to be ashamed of touting the company president as a "91 year-old WWII vet" which has nothing to do with the issues. Talk about misleading campaigning! NO on 33!

    James from

  2. Glad to see you go back to this - I read it yesterday with the results open in another window and felt the same way about 'Human Trafficking'. Truthfully I don't know how you people think a system with many propositions like these can possibly work.

    Also - I need to read more into how the language is created for these, who gets to 'pick' to be the 'No' side, etc. etc.

  3. It often works better than you'd think, in the negative sense: most of the Big Money-sponsored props go down in flames.

    The major drawback is in the language: the people or groups who draw up these initiatives do so in a vacuum, often badly, the voters are told to take it or leave it, and if they pass, they're in the Constitution and can't be fixed without another initiative, which never happens.

    I'm not sure what the process is for getting to write the ballot pamphlet arguments, but it hasn't served us well.