State Proposes $1 Billion Drought Relief

As reported by the San Jose Mercury News:

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders on Thursday proposed a $1 billion package of emergency legislation meant to help California weather its crippling drought.

But a news conference that unveiled the package — aimed at demonstrating how much the state is doing — seemed to spark more criticism about what Brown and other state leaders are not doing as the drought drags on into its fourth year.

Strangely, two-thirds of the money — $660 million — is earmarked for flood control projects, money California voters approved in a 2006 flood control bond. …

Click here to read the full story

Proposed Bill Will Force Parents to Choose: Vaccinate or Homeschool

The measles outbreak has injected the California Legislature with a new urgency in dealing with vaccine issues. First up is a new bill, as yet without a number, by state Sens. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, and Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, the latter a pediatrician.

According to Pan’s website, the bill “will repeal the personal belief exemption that currently allows parents to effectively opt their child out of vaccines in our schools.” Under the exemption, “a parent may choose to opt their child out of school vaccine requirements that bi-partisan legislative majorities passed to protect students.”

As the Sacramento Bee reported, the vaccination issue has roiled California in unexpected ways, with “anti-vaxxers” cutting across familiar ideological and political categories. “I’m a registered Democrat, but that could possibly change,” one parent told the paper. “I could never be with a party that mandates, and takes away freedom from people.”

But Republicans have been wary of championing residents seen as directly responsible for the outbreak of major diseases. Some GOP officeholders in Sacramento have begun to reverse their earlier support of California’s relatively broad personal belief exemption, which extends beyond a carveout for religious beliefs. Others have reaffirmed a measured commitment to both vaccination and parental choice.

According to the Los Angeles Times, however, the bill would nevertheless extend some political cover to conservatives whose constituents favor close parental control of medical choices:

“The legislation does not address children who are completely home-schooled. It would still allow children to avoid vaccination for medical reasons including allergic responses and weak immune systems. The mandate only applies to children attending public or private schools.”

Democratic divisions

Perhaps surprisingly, Republicans may have already felt the worst of the political awkwardness — while Democrats face more internal disagreement. As the Wall Street Journal reported, “Dr. Pan wrote a 2012 law that went into effect last year that required a consultation with a health care practitioner to obtain the personal belief exemption. Gov. Jerry Brown added an exemption based on religious beliefs upon signing that law.”

Now, Brown’s office has indicated the governor is open to erasing the personal belief exemption.

Both California’s U.S. Senators, Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, also have urged their fellow party members to consider eliminating the religious-belief exemption. In a letter to California Health and Human Services Secretary Diana Dooley and other officials, the senators set out an uncompromising position:

“California’s current law allows two options for parents to opt out of vaccine requirements for school and daycare: they must either make this decision with the aid of a health professional, or they can simply check a box claiming that they have religious objections to medical care. We think both options are flawed, and oppose even the notion of a medical professional assisting to waive a vaccine requirement unless there is a medical reason, such as an immune deficiency.”

What’s more, Boxer and Feinstein went after parents who sought modified or delayed vaccination schedules even for preschool children — a move that could unsettle the swift but fragile bipartisan consensus forming around the Pan-Allen bill.

As BuzzFeed reported, the response among Democrats has not been as crisp and confident as Boxer and Feinstein might have hoped:

“Several liberal lawmakers unequivocally said parents should vaccinate their kids. But when pressed further on the state laws that allow parents to skip vaccinating their children if they have a medical, religious, or ‘personal belief’ reason not to do so, their answers became less clear.”

Nationally prominent California Democrats, from Rep. Maxine Waters to House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, couched their language in a way that steered clear of Boxer and Feinstein’s vaccination absolutism.

The office of California Attorney General Kamala Harris — who hopes to replace Boxer in the Senate — declined to answer any questions about Harris’s own stance.

Originally published on CalWatchdog.com

Atkins Proposes $1.8 Billion Tax on CA Drivers

For the second time in as many weeks Californians got the news that Sacramento politicians are proposing yet another big tax hike.  The truth is that new taxes would never be required were it not for Sacramento’s mismanagement of existing tax dollars.

Last week, it was the proposal to deal with the very real problem of “revenue volatility” in California’s tax structure with the very unreal “solution” of a $10 billion tax on services.

But the latest proposal comes from new Senate leader Toni Atkins who proposes a brand new tax on drivers to pay for highway and road repairs in California.  This new “fee” would take $1.8 billion dollars out of the pockets of hard working California citizens over the next five years.

Now, most Californians would wholeheartedly agree that our roads are in terrible shape.  Years of neglect have resulted in a highway system that, according to a recent state report, requires a massive infusion of $59 billion.  But taxpayers have a very good question that has yet to be answered:  How is it that California has the highest gas tax in the nation and yet cannot keep its roads in decent condition?

Moreover, although the exact nature of this new “fee” has yet to be determined, Senator Atkins’ comments in proposing the new revenue source can only be described as foolish and insulting. Here is what she said:  “California cannot have a strong middle class or a thriving economy if our roadways are congested and people and goods cannot move efficiently.”

Really?  A left-wing politician now claims that this new tax is needed to protect the middle class?  She is simply blind to the truth that the progressive policies of heavy taxation and over regulation are crushing the middle class in California.  As is so common now in California, statements from politicians such as Atkins reveal a profound disconnect between their pampered lives and the lives of ordinary citizens.

So, instead of slamming Californians with another tax hike, what is a better way to meet the funding needs for our crumbling highway system?  Glad you asked.

First, let’s demand that gas tax revenues pay for roads, not bike lanes, environmental mitigation programs and mass transit.  The latter programs are all well and good, but gas taxes should go for roads.  (For purposes of full disclosure, as a cyclist I support bike lanes.  But I don’t want my gas taxes paying for them).

Second, how much of our transportation dollars are wasted on burdensome labor restrictions?  So-called “Project Labor Agreements” add between 25 to 35% to the cost of highway construction. Let’s get rid of PLA’s and, while we’re at it, “prevailing wage” laws which also add to the cost of construction unnecessarily.

Third, let’s direct valuable transportation dollars to those systems that actually work.  This would mean abandoning the doomed-to-fail High Speed Rail Project that is sucking up tax dollars in a way that voters never approved.

Fourth, we can agree that gas tax revenue has fallen a bit short of expectations because cars are now more fuel efficient.  But if that is the case, why does the state still subsidize electric vehicles? Shouldn’t we abandon those subsidies and direct those dollars to filling potholes?

Instead of reflexively demanding higher taxes, our elected officials should do what other states seem to do without controversy – prioritize spending.  Now there’s a novel concept.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California’s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.

Originally published at HJTA.org

Foie Gras Battle Continues

Just two days before the deadline, California Attorney General Kamala Harris’ office filed notice the state would challenge U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson’s January ruling that federal law preempts the state’s ban on serving foie gras.

The phrase in French means “fatted liver” and comes from a goose or duck that is force fed to produce the delicacy. The case is named after the main plaintiff, based in Canada, the Association des Eleveurs de Canards et d’Oies du Quebec vs. Harris.

Harris’ office declined to comment on the filing. But advocates of maintaining the ban were quick to weigh in, beginning with Paul Shapiro, the Humane Society’s vice president of farm animal protection. According to Reuters, heclaimed, “California has the right to prevent the commerce in such a cruel and inhumane product.”

That’s anything but certain. As the Los Angeles Times reported, the plaintiffs who challenged the foie gras ban expressed certainty that constitutional law was on their side. They said:

“We’re very confident that the district court’s judgment will be upheld on appeal. The decision was based on the simple fact that, in the field of meat and poultry, federal law is supreme. California does not have the right to ban wholesome, USDA-approved poultry products, whether it’s foie gras or fried chicken. We look forward to having our victory affirmed by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.”

The Ninth Circuit, however, took up the issue before. In 2013, it turned back an injunction by out-of-state farmers to put the California ban on hold until the matter could go through the courts.

That raises the possibility that the ban will be upheld again, triggering an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Facing federal law

As CalWatchdog.com previously reported, Wilson ruled the ban ran afoul of federal poultry regulations — specifically, the Poultry Products Inspection Act, or PPIA. He wrote:

“This issue boils down to one question: whether a sales ban on products containing a constituent that was produced in a particular manner is an ‘ingredient requirement’ under the PPIA. California cannot regulate foie gras products’ ingredients by creatively phrasing its law in terms of the manner in which those ingredients were produced.”

The ban arose in 2004, after then-State Sen. John Burton, D-San Francisco, introduced Senate Bill 1520. The bill prohibited foie gras from being produced or sold in California, thereby ruling out imports of the fattened-liver delicacy. Wilson’s decision approved the importation and sale of foie gras, but did nothing to alter California’s prohibition on production.

The perils of prohibition

However the legal case against the ban may fare in higher court, observers have taken note of the practical effect of foie gras prohibition. Much like America’s experiment with alcohol Prohibition, 1920-33, banning foie gras appeared to increase Californians’ appetite for what was banned.

As Josh Barro detailed at the New York Times, demand for foie gras rose precipitously both immediately before and after the ban:

“‘We saw an up in volume two years ago when the ban went into effect,’ said Ariane Daguin, chief executive of the specialty food supplier D’Artagnan, which sells to both restaurants and consumers. ‘People wanted to see what the brouhaha was about. Now what is happening is all the chefs who are our friends and have been buying other things from us want to put foie gras back on the menu.’”

What’s more, as Robin Abcarian reported in the Los Angeles Times, fattened liver “never truly disappeared from menus.” Chef Ken Frank, a big foie gras proponent, told Abcarian he “skirted the ban by giving customers foie gras, randomly delivered, he said, with a note explaining the gift was a protest.”

Although he insisted he “went to great lengths not to violate the letter of the law,” Frank himself has been dragged into court by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which brought suit against him and his restaurant in March 2013.

Originally published on CalWatchdog.com

California State Spending Well Above National Average

As reported in the Sacramento Bee:

California contains 12.2 percent of the nation’s population but its state government accounted for 13.8 percent of all state spending in the 2012-13 fiscal year, according to a new Census Bureau report.

California’s spending on education and highways was, however, below the national averages for those two categories, while its welfare spending was well above the average.

States collected $1.7 trillion in revenues and spent that much during the fiscal year and California accounted for $233.5 billion of the spending, including federal pass-through funds for welfare, health care, education and other services.

The national total was a 2.1 percent increase from the previous year, the Census Bureau said, while California’s 7.5 percent increase was by far … 

 

CA to legalize online poker?

As reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune:

 — Will 2015 be the year California legalizes online poker?

Two lawmakers at the state Capitol are betting big that it will be.

But their competing bills, introduced early this session, show there’s still strong disagreement about which industry players should control and benefit from the popular, and lucrative, business.

Candidates include card clubs, Indian tribes, race tracks and out-of-state gaming companies.

Lawmakers and these groups have failed for nearly a decade to craft rules … 

Full Story Here

CA Lobbyists Celebrate Successful 2014

It’s got a bad reputation, even in some parts of Washington, D.C. But lobbying is a way of life in California, where the practice shows no signs of letting up.

In a string of news events and reports, the many faces of lobbying have resurfaced as the political year winds down.

And Silicon Valley, forging its way deeper into politics, has pushed lobbying to the fore with its efforts to advance special objectives at the state and federal levels.

According to figures tallied by the Sacramento Bee, California lobbying firms were off to a great start in the first half of the year, posting big numbers. Over that time, they pulled in $92.6 million, 7 percent better than last year’s January-to-June cycle; plus interest groups shelled out some $141.5 million on lobbying, exceeding last year’s outlay.

Responsible for the uptick were squabbles over legislation involving online poker, health warnings on soft drinks and — a big new entrant — ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft.

Alone, Uber’s employment of lobbying became a major story in the second half of the year. To spearhead lobbying operations, Uber hired former Obama campaign strategist David Plouffe, a man with an insuperable Rolodex for a company seeking favorable outcomes from Democratic-controlled states.

According to the Washington Post, over the past two years Uber “hired private lobbyists in at least 50 U.S. cities and states, employing multiple firms in some places. … The records show that the company has hired at least 161 individuals to lobby on its behalf, on top of its own rapidly expanding policy office.”

That meant major outlays between summer and winter. In Sacramento, the Post noted, Uber paid “$475,000 from July to November to lobby California lawmakers.”

Silicon Valley struggles

Although Uber and its peer tech companies are sometimes portrayed as unstoppable goliaths, their headway in political circles has come at a cost, and not always with results as transformative as their disruption-friendly CEOs would wish. Uber itself has faced a fresh wave of bad publicity in recent months, with the company facing an outright ban on some Uber services in France and other European countries.

What’s more, even broadly shared political interests among Silicon Valley’s leading firms have encountered opposition, with lobbying unable to deliver results. Companies have pushed hard, as the Peninsula Press observed, to increase the number of so-called H-1B visas, which would trigger an influx of highly-skilled immigrants well trained in tech.

The Press quoted Emily Lam, the vice president of the Silicon Valley Leadership Group, a public policy trade organization that counts many of tech’s biggest companies among its members:

“We’ve been lobbying for this for over 10 years, and it’s not happened, so there is a lot of frustration. The tide is turning where this isn’t going to be the place where people want to be because it’s so difficult to get a visa, and we want to have the best and brightest here.”

Through the revolving door

One group that has found success in lobbying is former California members of Congress from both parties who have taken up lobbying, a new McClatchy report has highlighted.

Some retired representatives even see their work as a continuation of their time in Congress. Former Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., was tapped to curry legislative favor for the Water Resources Development Act, which was sponsored by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. The act improved rivers and harbors and increased water conservation.

Flush with experience and close contacts with the representatives and senators closest to the issue, Doolittle got a bill through both houses of Congress within three years.

“In this hyperpartisan era, it was quite frankly a major accomplishment,” he told McClatchy. “It was a very satisfying continuation of my public service.”

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

2015 State Senate Elections Triggered by Vacancies

The Nov. 4 vote didn’t end this election cycle, but sparked a new round. Three sitting state senators won seats in the U.S. House of Representatives: Sens. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Walnut Creek; Steve Knight, R-Antelope Valley; and Mimi Walters, R-Irvine.

They will resign their positions in the state Legislature sometime before Jan. 5 to take their places in Congress.

Within 14 calendar days of each resignation, Gov. Jerry Brown must, in accordance with the California Elections Code, call a special election between 126 and 140 days later. If no candidate claims 50 percent of the vote plus one in the first round, a run-off election will be held between the top two candidates. Two years ago, when state Sens. Juan Vargas and Gloria Negrete McLeod resigned to take their seats in Congress, on Jan. 7 the governor called for March 12 special elections.

A fourth state Senate seat is already open from a vacancy created by the conviction and resignation of state Sen. Rod Wright, D-Inglewood. That special election in the 35th Senate District is scheduled for next Tuesday, Dec. 9, with a potential run-off on Feb. 10.

Special elections routinely cost county elections offices nearly a half-million dollars each. In 2013, the special election for Senate District 32 cost Los Angeles County $483,240, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Here at CalWatchdog.com, we’ve assembled your go-to guide for the 2015 special elections.

State Senate 7: Mark DeSaulnier heads to Congress

With DeSaulnier heading to Washington, his open seat speeds up the timeline for what would have been a 2016 showdown, because he was term-limited, between a former and current member of the Assembly, both Democrats.

For six years, Joan Buchanan represented the 16th Assembly District, portions of which overlap with the open seat. She’ll face stiff competition from Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla of Concord, the largest city in the district.

Bonilla has a long history in the district. Prior to joining the Legislature, she served as a Contra Costa County supervisor as well as Concord mayor and council member.

Local attorney Mark Meuser, the Republican candidate who lost to DeSaulnier by 23 points in 2012, has also jumped into the race, according to the Antioch Herald.

Another candidate that could benefit from a Buchanan vs. Bonilla slug-fest is moderate Democrat Steve Glazer. An adviser to Gov. Jerry Brown, Glazer was Public Enemy No. 1 of the state’s powerful labor unions in the June 2014 primary for the 16th Assembly District. He finished in third place, with just 22 percent. In a close election on Nov. 4, Republican Catharine Baker beat Democrat Tim Sbrianti.

State Senate District 7 voter registration numbers:

  • Democrat: 43.6 percent;
  • Republcian: 28.7 percent;
  • Decline to State: 22.0 percent.

State Senate 21: Replacing Steve Knight

Knight’s win in the 25th Congressional District will trigger a special election in Los Angeles County. But the strongest candidate to replace Knight has already decided not to enter the race. KHTS reported last month that Assemlyman Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, already has ruled out a run for the seat.

“I love the district that I represent and I expect to be named vice chair of a very important committee that I want to be a part of” in the Assembly, Wilk said. “And I believe that we can find a very electable Republican that can do a great job. We’ve got a lot of momentum and we want to keep it going.”

There’s buzz that former Assemblyman Tim Donnelly is mulling a bid for the seat, according to the Desert Dispatch. In the June primary election, the Republican lost a bid for governor.

However, Donnelly doesn’t live in the district, which could be a big problem with voters. The district sent Knight to Congress over better-funded opponent Tony Strickland, a former Republican state Senator, who did not live in the 25th Congressional District.

Victorville businessman Sal Chavez has already launched his campaign for Knight’s seat. So has Hesperia City Councilman Eric Schmidt. Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford has formed an exploratory committee, but isn’t formally committed to the race. Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris is similarly toying with the idea of running for the seat. All are Republicans.

Democrats now hold an edge in voter registration, which could help a lone Democrat reach a run-off. Star Moffatt, the 2012 Democratic nominee who lost to Knight by 15 points, has also announced for the seat.

State Senate District 21 voter registration numbers:

  • Democrat: 38.3 percent;
  • Republican: 35.7 percent;
  • Decline to State: 20.2 percent.

State Senate 35: Special to fill Rod Wright’s seat

Wright’s resignation kicks off the state Senate Special election season on Dec. 8. Former Assemblyman Isadore Hall is expected to cruise to victory after forcing his toughest competition, Assemblyman Steven Bradford, out of the race. Both are Democrats.

Hall has come under fire from his opponents for frequent junkets and lavish campaign spending, which included a trip with lobbyists to the 2014 Kentucky Derby.

Hall’s opponents are businessman James Spencer, a Republican; and two Democrats, retired teacher Louis L. Dominguez and Harbor Planning Commissioner Hector Serrano. “We are a working-class community, and we don’t live that type of life of luxury, taking trips all over,” Serrano told the Los Angeles Times.

State Senate District 35 voter registration numbers:

  • Democrat: 61.0 percent;
  • Republcian: 14.2 percent;
  • Decline to State: 20.4 percent.

State Senate 37: Succeeding Mimi Walters

Walters, who cruised into a safe Orange County congressional seat, will see at least two Republicans duke it out for the remainder of her term in Sacramento. As reported by CalWatchdog.com, outgoing Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach has announced his candidacy for the 37th state Senate District. He’ll face current Assemblyman Don Wagner. If Wagner were to prevail, it would result in yet another special election to fill the remainder of his term in the Assembly.

Another big-name Orange County politico, GOP party chairman Scott Baugh, briefly flirted with a run for the seat. He is a former Assembly Republican leader. However, he now says he doesn’t intend to run.

A potential Moorlach vs. Wagner match-up could turn into a nasty intra-party feud. Wagner has recently run into trouble with conservative Tea Party activists.

“Wagner was one of two local Assemblymen out of a total of 15 Legislators statewide who were signatories to a letter encouraging Congress to pass an amnesty bill,” wrote Kelly Hubbard, a Tea Party activist in Orange County. “The letter has never received too much media attention, but has no doubt been a very hot topic with local activists and with many members of the Tea Party grassroots in Orange County!”

State Senate District 37 voter registration numbers:

  • Democrat: 28.7 percent;
  • Republcian: 42.6 percent;
  • Decline to State: 23.9 percent.

(H/T to AroundtheCapitol.com for providing voter registration data.)

This article was originally published on CalWatchdog.com

Gov. Brown, CalPERS Face Off In 2015

A piece of this year’s politics moving into 2015 is Gov. Jerry Brown’s tiff with the California Public Employees’ Retirement System. In particular, Brown remains steamed over CalPERS’ use of temporary pay to pad pensions. In a letter to CalPERS, he said the action “would improperly allow temporary pay resulting from short-term promotions to count towards workers’ pensions.”

Divisions on CalPERS’ Board of Administration, where Brown can count on allied appointees, opened around the controversy. Although Brown’s side in the controversy lost a close vote, plans have already been hatched for a rematch.

The bout has been a long time in coming. As summer turned to fall, Controller John Chiang took CalPERS to task for juicing up pensions while dishing them out at unsustainably high levels. Chiang was just elected state treasurer, so he will remain an ex officio member of the CalPERS board.

In late August, Brown tasked his team with doing all it could legally to prevent CalPERS from engaging in the pension spiking.

In that procedure, a public pension fund passes rules that allow pension levels to be adjusted significantly upward by taking temporary or exceptional kinds of work and pay into account. CalPERS had pushed the credibility of these measures to the breaking point, in effect securing special pension increases simply because employees did their jobs, such as librarians shelving books.

But Brown made a point to object only to CalPERS’ temporary pay rules, which allowed unique, fleeting raises for non-permanent work to be factored into pension setting.

By mid-September, Chiang had concluded that CalPERS’ pension spiking was unacceptable in theory, but unpunishable in practice. CalPERS’ “available resources” for spiking oversight, Chiang concluded, “limit its annual reviews to only 45, or 1.5 percent of the more than 3,000 reporting entities. At this current rate, pension spiking could go undetected for an extended period of time, as each reporting entity would be reviewed, at the earliest, every 66 years.”

The task of auditing CalPERS’ shenanigans had to fall, in other words, to the Legislature.

As a matter of common sense, it was much more attractive for Brown to try to exercise oversight by reforming the rules CalPERS used to set pensions, instead of by pouring the state’s time and energy into auditing those rules after scores of changes went into effect.

A tough matchup

That is why, as the Sacramento Bee reported, Brown’s appointees on the CalPERS board proceeded to force a vote on removing temporary pay from the fund’s cornucopia of pension-spiking sweeteners. Unfortunately for Brown, the vote failed, splitting 7-5 in favor of retaining the objectionable rule.

In an interview, state human resources head Richard Gillihan — a Brown ally on the board who voted against temporary-pay pension spiking — told the Bee that 2015 would offer another shot at reform. “What should or shouldn’t be included in final compensation is absolutely something that we think needs broader revisitation,” he said. “We hope to see that sooner rather than later.”

According to the fund’s website, “The CalPERS Board of Administration consists of 13 members — six elected ‘member representatives,’ three appointed representatives, and four ‘ex officio’ representatives. The elected candidates will serve a four-year term and represent active and retired members in all aspects of CalPERS’ business – including benefit and membership issues, and oversight and investment of Fund assets.”

But as the Bee observed, “The board’s composition will lean more heavily toward labor’s interests next year.” The Service Employees International Union shelled out some $250,000 to secure the election of incoming member Theresa Taylor.

Even though California taxpayers are on the hook for any CalPERS shortfall, they have no say in the six elected “member” representatives. Those representatives are chosen, according to CalPERS, by ballots “mailed to eligible, active state and public agency CalPERS members.”

Leadership trouble

A complication, however, has added further difficulties to the equation. September also saw the board approve the appointment of Ted Eliopoulos, former CalPERS senior investment officer for real estate, as its new chief investment officer.

That provoked the ire of J.J. Jelincic, a board member unable to vote against Eliopoulos because he was recused for being on leave. Jelincic told Pensions and Investments that Eliopoulos lacked “the temperament and management skills” needed for the job.

Pensions and Investments noted, “He said Mr. Eliopoulos relied too much on the advice of consultants, made the wrong decision to increase CalPERS’ exposure to riskier non-core real estate assets before the financial crisis, and played favorites with employees.”

The enmity has served to cloud Brown’s prospects even further for charting an effective course toward CalPERS reform.

This article was originally published by CalWatchdog.com

 

Who to Dislike More: The Supporters of Ballot Propositions, or Those Who Oppose Them?

I don’t know who to distrust more, the people who write ballot propositions, or the people who write the ads opposing them. Both sides seem to be good at lying to us, although they lie in different ways. Many of our ballot propositions are special interest pleading, designed to give some advantage to the oil companies or the insurance companies. Others are just flat out unconstitutional. And when a decent proposition makes it to the ballot, the special interests gang up on it ferociously.

Here’s a little test you can give yourself: The next time you hear a political ad on your car radio about a ballot proposition, ask yourself, “Did that ad tell me anything about the proposition itself, like what it is actually supposed to do?”

My prediction, based on long experience, is that you can go through a whole season of political ads, and never find out what the propositions would actually do. This year, we’re getting bombarded with ads opposing Propositions 45, 46, and 47, and as usual, all of the ads sound pretty much the same. They are full of angry, self-righteous tones, scathing in their denunciations, but communicating exactly nothing about the substance of the propositions.

Here’s one clue: What’s the dirtiest word in the political advertisers’ dictionary? You might think that it’s murderers or rapists. But No.

It’s politicians, as in The Politicians. This season, we’re getting exposed to a new variant, Sacramento politicians. Somehow, the idea that our form of democracy involves electing people to represent us has become a bad thing, at least in the world of AM radio.

This does not mean that we should automatically trust all of our elected officials, but the way that radio and tv ads use the word politician, the intonation implies that they are all sleazy, dishonest, and out to steal from us.

Even if this were true, the idea that a particular ballot proposition turns our liberties and our wallets over to the politicians is almost always a stretch, and most of the time, it’s a total non sequitur.

Just for the sake of amusement, let’s reflect on what those propositions are actually supposed to do, and then consider what, if anything, we’ve learned about them from television and radio.

I have to add a caveat here. Once in a while, we get a proposition that is intended to protect us consumers. These are the odd exceptions. We’ll start with what looks to be one of those odd exceptions, a proposition aimed at protecting you and me from unreasonable increases in our health insurance.

This proposition would give the State Insurance Commissioner the authority to override increases in health insurance premiums. It’s called Proposition 45, and it has the support of consumer advocates such as Jamie Court and Harvey Rosenfield. Some of us remember  Prop 103, which put a modest amount of state regulation on the automobile insurance market. It was authored by the same Harvey Rosenfield. Now we have Prop 45, which is supposed to do for health insurance what Prop 103 did for auto insurance.

What’s noticeable about the radio and television ads opposing this measure is that the particular state official who can override a rate increase is never named. Rather, it’s a politician, who is further identified as somebody who will rake in millions of dollars in campaign contributions if this proposition is to pass.

The substantive idea, that the voters could pick their own elected official, and give that person some regulatory authority over health insurance premium increases, is treated as if it were a bad thing.

You have to recognize the cynicism involved in this kind of message. It’s more or less implied that the voters will pick a dangerously warped individual to fill the position of Insurance Commissioner, or any other high office in the state for that matter. That’s the clear implication in a radio ad which uses an angry tone of voice to say those words, the politicians.

Going up the line, we have Prop 46. The Official Voter Information Guide sent by the California Secretary of State’s office gives this proposition the name “Drug and alcohol testing of doctors. Medical negligence lawsuits. Initiative Statute.”

As written, it sounds like it’s designed to protect the public from hordes of drunken, drug depraved doctors, people who are writing dangerous prescriptions and engaging in ruinous surgeries. What’s curious is that this is camouflage for the real intent, which is to give victims of true medical malpractice a break. To explain what is really going on, and the extent of distortion in the anti-Prop 46 campaign, takes a bit of explaining.

Back in 1975, there was a concern about the number of lawsuits filed against doctors for malpractice. The legislature passed a bill which, among other things, put a cap on awards given to patients for what are called noneconomic damages. The colloquial term for noneconomic damages is “pain and suffering.”

In other words, if someone went into the hospital in order to have the left leg amputated and by accident, the right leg was cut off, there would be two types of damages. The patient might find that he could no longer work in his longtime profession.

Being out of this particular job, and likely for the rest of his career, he would suffer loss of earnings. The 1975 bill didn’t touch that element of a lawsuit. But the suffering that results from losing the good leg, that you might otherwise have walked on, is the noneconomic kind of loss. The 1975 bill capped such losses at $250,000.

The problem with this situation is that even back in 1975, the supporters of the bill assumed that it would be modified over the course of time to take inflation into account. The original bill did not include a cost of living adjustment, and the state legislature has never made the obvious changes. There has been almost 40 years since the bill passed, and that included a lot of inflation.

So Prop 46 is essentially an increase in the legislated limits on medical malpractice damages.

You may feel that there should be no medical malpractice lawsuits, or at least very few of them, and that jury awards need to be controlled. If that is how you feel, then you might want to vote against this measure. You would be on the side of what the Republicans have been calling tort reform.

On the other hand, if you think that the 1975 bill was somewhat reasonable, and you merely wish to correct its original limitations to take inflation into account, then you might want to vote in favor.

I need to give disclosure here that I have known lots of attorneys, including those who have defended doctors and those who have sued doctors, and I also know lots of doctors. Take everything I have said here with that in mind. And having said that, there is a point that Prop 46 illustrates that needs to be explored.

Let’s say that you have a legal goal that you think has merit. For example, back in the old days, it required a two-thirds majority in both houses of the state legislature to pass the budget. The result was ongoing gridlock. In practice, the budget was determined by 4 or 5 people — generally the leaders of both parties in both houses of the legislature and the governor. It was a formula for legalized blackmail on the part of the minority party. A series of ballot measures were introduced over the course of the years, and until the most recent, they lost.

What did they have in common? Well for one thing, they usually didn’t go far enough, which would have been to declare that budgets, like other kinds of bills, can be passed by a simple majority. You know, democracy and all that.

Instead, the proponents would try to present the voters a watered down version, like reducing the required votes from two-thirds down to some number between fifty and sixty percent. Supporters of the minority party would oppose these measures on general principles, and supporters of the majority party would find them to be half measures at best.

Authors of ballot measures try to add a little sugar to make the medicine go down better. They try to bribe the voters in some way.

Back in the battles over state budget votes, one bribe offered the voters was to withhold salary payments from legislators if they didn’t pass a budget on time. It was a way to punish lawmakers for failing to get their work done. It was the sugar added to the medicine, because the rest of the proposition lowered the threshold for passing a budget to a simple majority.

In practice, that sprinkling of sugar is usually irrelevant. With the budget passage requirement reduced to a simple majority, it became possible to pass California budgets on time.

In Prop 46, we have a requirement forcing doctors and nurses to submit to drug and alcohol testing. The text of the proposition does its best to rationalize this demand by arguing that there are a lot of substance abusing, impaired doctors wandering the corridors of our state’s hospitals.

This may or may not be an accurate portrayal, but the proposition as written provides only vague guidelines, as best I can read it. If you wanted to deal with the problem of impaired physicians, you could do so in a better, more carefully thought out way. In Prop 46, the drug and alcohol testing requirements are the slight of hand that are supposed to get the increase in medical malpractice awards raised above the $250,000 limit. There would have been a more reasonable approach to raising that limit, and that would be simply to raise it.

Then there is Prop 47, which is about criminal sentencing. What’s curious about it is that both sides seem to be making reasonable points. When you read the pro and con arguments in the ballot pamphlet, you find a pro argument that makes sense. Our laws for personal possession of drugs are severe, and should be modified.

That part is OK with me. That’s because to me, the possession of small amounts of drugs may be harmful to you, but it is not, in and of itself, harmful to me. Where I depart from the pro-Prop 47 position is their argument that small property crimes such as shoplifting automatically become misdemeanors. In this case, there is a victim, and allowing criminals to continue their careers as thieves does not fall under the concept of victimless crimes. The opponents also make a point about classifying thefts of guns as misdemeanors. It is a serious point, and one that the pro side should rebut if there is a rebuttal available.

In other words, I see elements in Prop 47 that seem to have merit, and I see arguments by the opponents that also seem to have merit.

What I have not heard, on radio or television, is a nuanced statement that admits any of the above. I imagine that as the election gets closer, we will hear some ads that simply quote the chief of police from one district and on the other side, the district attorney from somewhere else. And it is extremely unlikely that any of the radio or television ads will tell us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Radio ads are expensive, so the sponsors of these ads are trying to make them as convincing as possible, while using the least amount of expensive air time. For this reason, the ads are tailored to be strongly manipulative, while avoiding going completely over the line into full-scale lying. Telling half lies, that is to say, lying by omission, fills the bill adequately.

What’s interesting is that most of the time, the people of California seem to sort out the propositions pretty well. Since most propositions that end up on the state ballot are written by special interest groups, the default position should be to vote NO on most propositions, and our voters seem to sort these ballot measures appropriately.

If you look at Propositions 46 and 47, you begin to figure out that the issues could have been better handled as legislative matters. The fact that the state legislature is intimidated from doing useful things due to the influence of special interest money is well known. But that doesn’t mean that the rest of us need to vote for iffy propositions, particularly the ones that are designed with nothing but hidden agendas in mind.

Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for CityWatch, where this aritcle was originally published. He can be reached at amrep535@sbcglobal.net