Neither Proposition 28 nor 29 on Tuesday’s ballot aroused any significant emotion – and maybe that’s why the limited proposition action in this primary resulted in one smashing victory and one very close call.
Term limits had been a sacred cow in California for 22 years since they were adopted via the 1990 Proposition 140. But with little interest and low turnout in the spring election, there was virtually no resistance to the alterations in Proposition 28. The large margin by which it passed, almost 2-1, suggested to some that many voters may not have understood it completely.
Similarly, not even the $47 million-plus pumped into the anti-Proposition 29 campaign by tobacco companies could create much excitement. And while taxes remain unquestionably unpopular, smoking apparently is almost as disliked.
Both these measures, then, possessed a stealth factor. But things will be very different this fall, when voters will see not only a presidential election (yes, California did stage a presidential primary, one that mattered not a bit), but at least six propositions will stir passionate campaigns. These will cover subjects from taxes to car insurance prices to the three-strikes-and-you’re-out law, the death penalty, political contributions by labor unions (via a measure sometimes called “paycheck protection”) and health insurance prices.
There could be even more action than that, depending on whether other measures still out gathering signatures qualify. These include a ban on selling previously-voter approved high speed rail bonds, labeling of all genetically engineered foods and shareholder approval of political donations by corporations.
The concentration of heavy-duty issues on the November ballot is the choice of the Democrats who now control Sacramento: Knowing there would be no significant presidential primary in their party, they figured turnout would be low. They also reckoned they will need a high turnout of motivated voters to defeat the third coming of paycheck protection, a conservative-backed measure aiming to curtail labor union campaign donations by forcing union leaders to obtain members’ permission yearly in order to use some of their dues money for politics.
Democrats knew that measure would qualify in time for the primary, but didn’t want the vote in June. They couldn’t single out one measure for delay. So they opted to delay almost everything. Only time will tell if their strategy succeeds.
Meanwhile, voters were left to concentrate on congressional and legislative primaries in the spring.
That basically left initiatives of major interest only to smokers or political junkies.
Who but folks in the Legislature and the most seriously wonkish others cared much whether lawmakers are limited to serving 14 years in the Legislature, as is now possible (the time limited to six years in the Assembly and eight in the state Senate), or 12 years, all of which can be in one house.
True, Proposition 28 allows more continuity and could give legislators much more chance to develop expertise on the issues they confront daily. That could allow them to depend less on non-term limited staff members who sometimes let their own agendas color the advice and information they give their bosses. Those staff members often seem to survive and thrive while their employers move on every few years.
Proposition 28 also may slow the perpetual Sacramento game of musical chairs which has seen most lawmakers start angling for their next sinecure even before they’re sworn in for a first term. But the suspicion remains that most voters simply believed 12 years is less than 14.
If voters were really interested in preventing the sorts of problems term limits have brought, they might never have passed them 22 years ago, as they overwhelmingly did.
Then there was Proposition 29, seeking to add a dollar a pack to the cost of cigarettes and raising the tax on other tobacco products commensurately. It aimed to make the cigarette tax $1.87 per pack, with the extra money going to cancer research.
At its current level, the cigarette tax significantly reduced smoking-related death and illness in California over the last 15 years; a higher tax might have moved even more smokers to quit.
One major flaw in Proposition 29’s plan for spending the estimated $735 million per year it would have raised was that for-profit corporations could have gotten as much as $500 million per year. Nothing guaranteed that big pharmaceutical companies who make most chemotherapy drugs would not use that state money to replace other research dollars, which would then be added to their already-large profits.
But distaste for smoking almost proved strong enough to push this seriously flawed measure through, even with Big Tobacco spending more than $40 million against it.
It’s understandable that voters couldn’t work up much steam about these measures. But November will be very different, featuring almost unending fodder for passions of many kinds.