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State Ballot Measures 

Wednesday, Oct 30 1996
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Propositions 204, 205, 206: Water, Jail, and Veteran General Obligation Bonds
Prop. 204, a grand compromise among environmental, business, and farming groups, would fund the largest water bonanza since the Central Valley Project in 1960. The measure provides for ecological restoration and pollution reduction sought by environmentalists and a variety of water projects (waste treatment and flood control) for farmers and local water agencies.

Supporters of this $995 million bond measure, which will be financed through the General Fund, say these long overdue improvements prepare California for the next century. Organized opposition is limited to the Libertarian Party, which says that since farmers and industry use 85 percent of the state's water, residential users shouldn't be obliged to subsidize their projects.

Prop. 205 is a small piece of the tab for California's three-strikes law. Jails in 27 counties in California are busting at the seams, due in large part to the addition of three-strikes defendants awaiting trial. This prompted the Legislature to write Prop. 205, a $700 million bond measure to be paid for by taxpayers for local youth and adult facilities. Because voters in the past have defeated bond measures to build more state prisons, Prop. 205 is seen as a test of the public's appetite for expanding local lockups.

Opponents, including the Bay Area's Criminal Justice Consortium and the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, say politicians addicted to jail and prison expansion should turn their attention to less costly alternatives for nonviolent criminals to reduce overcrowding.

Prop. 206 is a $400 million bond measure that provides loans to help California veterans with farm and home expenses. Because the loans are supposed to be paid back with interest, supporters claim this program won't cost taxpayers a cent.

Propositions 207, 211, 213: Tort Reform
Consumer attorneys wrote Prop. 207 to help prevent their contingency fees -- usually 30 percent of settlements -- from being capped in the future by ballot initiatives or the Legislature. They say contingency arrangements give people who otherwise couldn't afford an attorney the means to sue corporate wrongdoers because they don't have to pony up for their lawyers before going to trial.

But business-backed groups, which tried unsuccessfully to limit these fees to 15 percent on the March ballot, say uncapped contingency arrangements only encourage frivolous lawsuits at a high cost to businesses.

Funded by law firms poised to profit from its passage, Prop. 211 will make it easier for investors suffering stock losses to sue businesses for fraud by shifting the burden of proof away from plaintiffs. Proponents are playing the senior-citizen card, arguing they are "the No. 1 target of investment con artists."

The opposition, including the Taxpayers Against Frivolous Lawsuits, raised a whopping $32.9 million as of September and may set a fund-raising record for state initiatives. The accounting, security, and venture capital firms behind the opposition vigorously attack Prop. 211, in part because it would make individual company officials liable.

Prop. 213 restricts uninsured and drunk drivers who are not at fault in auto accidents from suing for pain and suffering damages. The measure, which will spare insurers from paying large settlements in these cases, is backed by Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush, whose election campaign was stuffed with more than $1 million in donations from insurance companies.

Quackenbush says insurance companies will pass the savings on to policyholders. But opponents charge the measure unfairly targets the inner-city poor and students, who shouldn't lose the right to sue for noneconomic damages just because they can't afford auto insurance.

Propositions 208, 212: Campaign Finance Reform
With few restrictions on campaign spending, California is awash in special-interest money used to buy influence in Sacramento. The alienation of voters has created a clear opportunity to enact campaign finance reform, but the infighting among proponents of competing Propositions 208 and 212 is sure to confuse voters and hurt the measures' chances of victory.

Old allies -- 208's Common Cause and 212's California Public Interest Research Group -- split into moderate and radical camps, respectively. They are flinging insults and even fought in court. Typical of the measures' differences, 208 says a contributor can give no more than $250 per candidate in legislative races, vs. $100 under 212.

But despite rhetoric from Jerry Brown that Prop. 212 is the only measure on the ballot that tames special interests, the proposition also repeals (to the chagrin of most reformers) an existing ban on gifts and honoraria passed by voters in 1990. Stranger yet, Prop. 212 imposes mandatory spending limits that experts agree will be thrown out by the courts as a violation of free speech.

Proposition 209: Affirmative Action
Proponents of the "California Civil Rights Initiative" say it has nothing to do with affirmative action and everything to do with ending reverse discrimination. But Prop. 209, which prohibits the government from using race, ethnicity, and sex in decision-making, would end affirmative action in education, public employment, and contracting at both the state and local levels. A broad spectrum of opponents, including the chancellors of UC Berkeley and UCLA, say university campuses will be much whiter -- and job opportunities for women and minorities will be greatly reduced -- if Prop. 209 passes. One study shows the number of non-Asian minority freshman entering Cal would drop from 25 to 13 percent.

Proposition 210: Minimum Wage
This measure to hike the minimum wage in California to $5.75 by 1998 would affect 2 million workers, the bulk of them over the age of 20. At the current rate of $4.25, "a full-time minimum wage worker's income is 32 percent below the federal poverty line for a family of three," proponents say. Opponents from the Chamber of Commerce argue that Prop. 210 will mean fewer jobs. But supporters point out that the costs of a minimum-wage hike are also absorbed through higher prices and reduced business profits.

Propositions 214, 216: Health Care Reform
These competing measures address allegations that HMOs too often put profits before the health of their patients. HMOs do "gag" doctors' conversations with patients and offer them incentives to limit tests and treatments. But the consumer, union, and nursing groups behind Propositions 214 and 216 have created a "horror story" of their own.

Like the vitriolic campaign finance reformers, these health care advocates split into enemy camps over whether to impose new taxes -- called "greed fees" -- on health care businesses. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which backs 214, says taxes will mean certain death at the polls. The California Nurses Association, which supports 216, accuses the SEIU of "collaborating" with the HMOs. While the measures share many provisions -- banning HMOs from denying care without a second opinion, beefing up staffing, and removing the profit motive from treatment decisions -- the media war between the factions is welcome news to opponents. Both measures, the polls suggest, are headed for defeat. Opponents from the California Chamber of Commerce contend that the measures will raise the cost of health insurance and are self-serving because they create permanent job slots for nurses.

Proposition 215: Medical Marijuana
This measure allows doctors to prescribe marijuana and seriously ill patients to cultivate it to help treat chemotherapy side effects, AIDS symptoms, and other disorders. Physicians, who already have the power to prescribe a battalion of illicit drugs far more powerful than cannabis, say smoking pot reduces nausea, allowing patients to regain strength.

But state Attorney General Dan Lungren is leading a high-profile campaign against Prop. 215. Lungren has publicly attacked the comic strip Doonesbury for satirizing his decision to close down the Cannabis Buyers' Club in San Francisco. And with support for Prop. 215 running high, he ordered the arrest of the club's director, Dennis Peron, who is also the chief proponent of the measure.

Peron himself has admitted that his hands are hardly resin free. He is charged with selling pounds of grass to undercover agents with scant documentation, and he has conceded that his cannabis shop was one loosely run ship.

Propositions 217, 218: Taxes
Prop. 217 is not a simple "soak the rich" measure, although it does seek to restore higher tax rates on wealthy individuals who now pay 9.3 percent on income.

In 1991, in response to serious revenue shortfalls, Gov. Pete Wilson revived a tax rate that had been used in California between 1973 and 1987. As part of a five-year plan that expired in 1996, individuals making more than $100,000 paid a tax of 10 percent, while those earning more than $200,000 were taxed at 11 percent. In 1993, revenue problems also compelled the state to take $2 billion annually in property taxes from local governments to fund education.

Prop. 217 would bring back the 10 and 11 percent tax rates, and earmark the extra revenues for local governments and schools. The Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the measure, says it will drive small business owners, some of whom pay personal income rather than businesses taxes, out of the state.

Prop. 218 is the offspring of old Prop. 13. With the 1978 passage of Prop. 13, which gutted the state's property tax base, local governments began increasing fees and assessments on property owners to help fund local services. Now Prop. 218, backed by Prop. 13 supporters, seeks to clamp down on this practice by requiring the approval of property owners for increases in fees and assessments and banning their use for public services. Opponents -- teachers, cops, and seniors -- say Prop. 218 would spell catastrophe for local services.

About The Author

Dirk Olin

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