California initiatives: special interest slugfests and yet more bonds!

I received my ballot in the mail today. Living in California, we have vestiges of the Progressive era. These are not at all universal across the states. One is the power of recall, which we used back in 2003 with that insane election free-for-all. The other is the ballot initiative. People can vote for new laws, or to undo existing ones. In isolation, it is exciting. A small taste of direct democracy.

Two propositions this year show different issues with the state. One is Proposition 1, the end result of years of wrangling over the form a water bond act should take. It’s desperately needed in light of a record drought- California cannot reverse global climate change, so it must invest in infrastructure to mitigate its effects. But as with all major projects that end up on the ballot, it is not funded by taxation. Instead billions of dollars of bonds fund it, which will be paid off with significant interest. It’s silly to pay more than is necessary for schools, high speed rail, police, and water infrastructure, yet it is due to the nationwide allergy to taxes of any kind. I agree with the taxpayers’ associations that always pen the “against” sections of the election information packet you are sent that this is unsustainable. However, I still think the investments are needed.

There is no path to long-term economic stability in California as long as a) major initiatives are paid with loans, and b) the property tax still doesn’t factor in the massive increase in real estate prices. Every time a bond measure shows up on the ballot, it is in some ways a failure.

The second proposition that is demonstrative is Proposition 46. Ostensibly it’s about testing doctors for drugs, because otherwise they’re high as a kite and killing patients. That’s bullshit, because this is just a rehash of an ongoing battle between special interest groups, using the initiative process to get the law on their side. Looking at the fundraising game, it’s clear that this is just an old-fashioned slugfest between trial attorneys and physicians. Attorneys want more malpractice cash available, physicians don’t want to pay more in insurance. Over $50 million has been spent, mostly by physicians’ associations. Public interest isn’t factored in, this is just groups using the system as a weapon because they can’t get laws passed in their favor otherwise.

While I appreciate the chance to chime in on proposed laws, it is disconcerting to see these two issues continuing. Initiatives can do great things- in 2012 one raised taxes to fund education, another partially reformed the idiotic three-strikes law, and another closed a tax loophole (fixing something the legislature didn’t). But it can be abused, whether to kick financial obligations down to the younger generation, or as a way for special interests to promote naked self-interest.

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