A guide to the 2014 California propositions

Voting. It’s the right thing to do.

California flagThe Optimistic Conservative is back for another tour of state ballot initiatives in California, this time the ones voters will be considering on Tuesday, 4 November.

In this election cycle, there will be six statewide ballot initiatives before the voters.  I’ll take them in order by proposition number, starting with the observation that, on the whole, they seem to have made little impact on voters’ consciousness, other than the ones Jerry Brown has been plumping for (Props 1 and 2).

Optimistic Conservative recommendations in bold.

Proposition 1.  This is being called the “Water bond,” and is described by its chief proponent, Governor Jerry Brown, as a means of “saving water.”  With California in a years-long drought, voters want to hear that the state is doing something about the water situation, and Prop 1 seems, superficially, to fill that bill.

But the devil is in the details.  What does it mean, exactly, to “do something” about California’s water situation?  If you imagine that Prop 1 funds the expansion or updating of the state’s water distribution system – its infrastructure for capturing, storing, and distributing water – you’re wrong.

The initiative proposes $7.5 billion in state bond obligations, but only $2.7 billion of that would be applied – in part – to “water storage projects, dams and reservoirs.”  (See the link above for a complete breakout of the funding proposal.)

As laid out here, this would decisively limit the funds available for actually constructing water storage projects, dams, and reservoirs.  (The five major water projects under study by state and federal agencies run from $360 million to raise the dam at San Luis Reservoir in Merced County, to $3.8 billion to put a new reservoir in Colusa County.  The total bill for the five projects would be $8.8 billion.)

The proposition cuts the bond’s superficial promise down in this way by defining “public benefit” to require that most of the funding go to things other than actually constructing water storage infrastructure; e.g., “ecosystem improvements, water quality, flood control, or recreation.”

Furthermore, projects under Prop 1 would be constrained by the decision-making authority of the California Water Commission, politically appointed by the governor.  The Commission will still have the power to nix even the cheapest infrastructure improvements if they are deemed to not meet the standard of providing “measurable improvements to the [Sacramento-San Joaquin River] Delta ecosystem or to the tributaries to the Delta.”

In other words, approving Prop 1 would do nothing to ensure that there will be more water captured and distributed from the Sierra runoff each year.

California needed an increase in such storage and distribution capacity even before the court orders and environmental decrees of the last decade, which have drained reservoirs and sent millions of acre-feet of Sierra runoff water gushing through the man-made water distribution system into the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of California, instead of being stored and distributed for human use.  (The drought is made by nature, but the water shortages are made by man.)  Californians have voted for five “water bonds” since 2000, and each time, the voters thought they were voting to store and distribute more water.  But Wayne Lusvardi at Cal Watchdog has it right:  those bonds were water-“conservation” bonds.

And nearly $20 billion spent on five water-conservation bonds since 2000 have yielded no new water storage. Bonds ultimately must be paid back with tax dollars. If that money had been spent the past 14 years on dams, there likely would be no state drought crisis.

Jerry Brown talks carefully about Prop 1 “saving water,” because it’s yet another “conservation” bond that won’t yield any new water storage.  Don’t fall for it.

Note: the California Republican Party has officially endorsed Prop 1.  The CAGOP is wrong on this one, for the reasons laid out above.  The voters shouldn’t pay for any more “conservation” projects masquerading as water infrastructure projects.

NO on Proposition 1

Proposition 2.  This is being called the “save for a rainy day” initiative, which would require the state to create an additional “budget stabilization” fund, beyond the two it already has, and contribute to the main Budget Stabilization Account (BSA) in the amount of 1.5% of general revenues annually.  The third fund is for schools (“K-14,” meaning the funding includes the 2-year community college system); mandated “savings” deposits would be contingent on the education budget versus revenues from the streams that fund the schools.

Although Prop 2 is advertised as strengthening the BSA provision created by Prop 58 in 2004, Prop 2 gives the legislature the same leeway Prop 58 does to suspend contributions in bad fiscal years.  A key provision of Prop 2 is that 50% of the BSA “saving” amount – the 1.5% of general revenues – is to be used to fund state pension obligations and pay down debt, from the 2015-6 fiscal years through the 2029-30 fiscal years.

In other words, protection for state pensions and bond issues is built specifically into the proposition, and will actually consume 50% of the mandated “rainy day savings” each year until at least 2030.

Readers will have to decide for themselves how they feel about this.  No one can fault the requirement to save for a rainy day.  Both the Democratic Party and CAGOP endorse Prop 2, as do the major-party candidates for state office.  The only people actually complaining are special interest groups (all apparently leftist), who foresee that it’s their preferred programs that will have to take a back seat to that 1.5% when money is tight.

But (a) there’s a loophole, just as there was with Prop 58, that allows the legislature to suspend savings deposits, and (b) we’re not going to be saving the advertised 1.5% for the next 16 years.  At best, we’ll be saving 0.75% of revenues, while guaranteeing a stream of 0.75% of revenues to pensions and bond debt.

This is ultimately a move to protect California’s already compromised credit rating, so the state can keep borrowing without having to change its revenue prospects – e.g., by loosening business-killing regulation, or unleashing a fresh source of revenues, such as offshore drilling or shale oil exploitation – or having to make meaningful changes to its spending profile.  Prop 2 is an arrangement to continue down the same overregulated, overspent path we’re on.

Your choice.  I’m leaning toward:

NO on Proposition 2

Proposition 45.  This initiative requires all “changes to health insurance rates, or anything else affecting the charges associated with health insurance,” to be approved by the California Insurance Commissioner before they can take effect.  The paperwork requirements alone, in the CAGOP’s estimate, will require tens of millions in new costs that will ultimately be borne by consumers.

It’s a dramatic and prohibitive increase in regulation of health insurance, and hence in its cost.  But guess what?  It exempts employer large-group health plans from the requirement, meaning that big companies, unions, and other large work forces (e.g., in major tech companies) would feel no effects from it.  The effects would hit small businesses and individual-plan customers – the ones who are already reeling from the Obamacare mandate.

CAGOP is right on this one: it’s costly, excessive regulation, and concentrates power over health insurance unwisely in the hands of a single bureaucracy.

NO on Proposition 45

Proposition 46.  This initiative would increase the current cap on medical malpractice judgments by pegging it to inflation, and would also require doctors to submit to drug and alcohol tests.  It would further require medical workers to report doctors suspected of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol.  There are other related provisions; appended to it is a requirement that doctors “consult the state prescription drug history database before prescribing certain controlled substances.”

The major donors to the Yes on 46 effort are virtually all private litigation practices.  The lawyers are clearly licking their chops over it.  It appears to me to be full of questionable and highly litigable provisions, none of which would improve public safety or the delivery of health care in California.

If the cap on malpractice judgments needs to be lifted, the legislature can take that up.  The same applies to the other provisions.  The legislature would do a better job framing the legal intent of the measures.  This proposition has nothing to recommend it.  CAGOP and I agree on this one.

NO on Proposition 46

Proposition 47.  This one is called the Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative.  It mandates a reduction in classification of most “non-serious” and non-violent drug and property crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.

The purpose is ultimately to relieve pressure on the prison system.  The initiative includes a provision that would allow re-sentencing offenders currently serving terms for the felonies in question, a measure that would release about 10,000 inmates.  Here’s the list of felonies to be reclassified:

  • Shoplifting, where the value of property stolen does not exceed $950
  • Grand theft, where the value of the stolen property does not exceed $950
  • Receiving stolen property, where the value of the property does not exceed $950
  • Forgery, where the value of forged check, bond or bill does not exceed $950
  • Fraud, where the value of the fraudulent check, draft or order does not exceed $950
  • Writing a bad check, where the value of the check does not exceed $950
  • Personal use of most illegal drugs

The initiative assumes that there will be millions in savings for the public treasury from Prop 47, and that a “Safe Neighborhoods and Schools” fund could be created using that savings.  The projected level of the funding sounds overly optimistic to me ($150-250 million per year).  About 65% of the funding would be distributed to the Board of Corrections; i.e., for administering probation and community reintegration programs for the released and/or non-incarcerated offenders.

A key problem I see is that crimes with potentially very different levels of seriousness, in their implications for community safety and things like recidivism, are being lumped together in Prop 47.  But that’s just one of the problems.  This is another case where it’s the legislature that should be remaking policy – because it can be calibrated and refined that way – rather than leaving it to the people to issue wholesale mandates on things that actually ought to be differentiated.

CAGOP agrees with my recommendation here too.

NO on Proposition 47

Proposition 48.  This initiative is a “veto referendum,” which will affirm or reject a measure already approved in the assembly and signed into law by Jerry Brown.  A no vote means rejecting the measure; a yes vote affirms it.

The issue is a native tribe building a casino on non-tribal lands.  The compact for the casino was negotiated with Brown and approved by the legislature in 2013.  The casino is to be on 305 acres in predominantly rural Madera County; if it goes through as planned, it would set a precedent for a tribal gaming facility being opened on non-tribal land.

Under Prop 1A, passed in 2000, the tribal casino operators are allowed to open casinos on tribal land.  The new casino proposal would step outside of that provision, although it’s not crystal clear that tribes are prohibited from building casinos on non-tribal lands.  The North Fork Rancheria of Mono Indians, which proposes to operate the casino on non-tribal lands, in fact filed a lawsuit in 2013 against the referendum challenge (which eventually became Prop 48), arguing that the compact for the casino, agreed on by the governor and legislature, can’t be challenged by the referendum process.

So it’s a big can of worms.  Opponents of the casino compact are concerned that it would open the door to land-shopping for casinos anywhere in the state, including major urban areas where customers are naturally concentrated.  They don’t want areas of San Francisco, or San Diego or LA, looking like Las Vegas, basically.

I’m in sympathy with the mindset that doesn’t want casinos proliferating outside of specialized, carefully controlled areas.  They do bring crime and influence-peddling, when they occupy whole city neighborhoods on the Nevada model.

That doesn’t mean casinos have to be restricted to tribal lands only, but it does mean that California needs to actually write some principles and regulatory limits into law before the state lets tribal gaming expand beyond tribal lands.  That hasn’t been done, because casino gambling in the state has been restricted up to now to tribal lands.

The Democratic Party is the only major organization to endorse Prop 48.  The Republican Party doesn’t express an opinion on it one way or the other.  On balance, although I don’t object in principle to the possibility of casinos being operated outside tribal lands, I want to see some definitions and limits set before any expansion begins.

For this reason, I recommend voting:

NO on Proposition 48

** As always, I include a link to the invaluable Judge Voter Guide website, where judges are rated on an easy-to-decipher scale between “activist” and “strict constructionist,” and their qualifications rated from low to high.  The website’s manager, Mr. Craig Huey, favors the constructionist/constitutionalist judicial philosophy, and includes a yes/no voting recommendation for each judge, broken down by county.

For a complete statewide list of judicial elections, and an explanation of judicial candidacy and retention in California, see here.

Your sample ballot will, of course, have all the names you’ll be voting on.  If you’ve misplaced the one mailed to you, find your county’s registrar of voters online.  The county registrar will have your sample ballot available for viewing.  The secretary of state website does not have your sample ballot.  It has only the Voter Information Guide on statewide offices and propositions.

Printable pocket guide to the 2014 propositions.
Printable pocket guide to the 2014 propositions.

2 thoughts on “A guide to the 2014 California propositions”

  1. “…The total bill for the five projects would be $8.8 billion.”

    Is that what they’re saying J.E.? Take it from a Bostonian (i.e. a close up viewer of the Big Dig), that project will cost $15-20 billion, not $8.8 billion.

    I got my voting in this morning before going to work. Unlike 2012 where I waited in line for 30+mins, this time it was a breeze. Hopefully that means that the Dems don’t have their ground game going.

    1. Heh. Yeah, of course $8.8 billion is just the opening bid. Meanwhile, the real point is that Jerry Brown’s little “water bond” won’t actually pony up any of it. By the time the terms of the referendum are done nickel-and-diming the process with “environmental improvements” and other extraneous nonsense, there’s not enough left to pay for a sset of engineering specs, much less start building anything.

      Congrats to the Bay State Republicans on boosting Charlie Baker over the top. Nice to see him knock off Coakley.

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