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Capitol Creeps

Few proposition campaigns have been entirely factual, but the finalists in the category of phoniness are unquestionably Proposition 37 — a vaunted “taxpayer protection” scheme that will raise your taxes — and Proposition 34, a “campaign-finance reform” measure that undoes what Californians already voted overwhelmingly to do.

Proposition 34 also gets points for sneakiest origin. While Proposition 37’s wealthy backers (oil, tobacco and alcohol interests) baldly bought their way onto the ballot, the state Legislature’s leadership slipped in Proposition 34 and purposely excluded from sample ballots any honest description of its purpose.

“Politicians don’t want voters to know what Proposition 34 really is intended to do — kill Proposition 208 before it can even take effect,” said Anne Henderson, legislative director of the League of Women Voters. It’s been business as usual on the endless Sacramento fund-raising circuit because Proposition 208, which passed with 61 percent of the vote four years ago, has been held unconstitutional by a lower-court judge. In January, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Missouri law with similar contribution limits, creating panic in the smoke-filled rooms of Sacramento.

With campaign reform this year’s motherhood issue, a frontal assault was out of the question. Much smoother, thought legislators, to masquerade as John McCains with a new “reform” that repeals three-fourths of Proposition 208 and replaces it with much higher contribution and spending limits. In the process, all limits on giving in local races were dropped and the door kept open to unlimited soft money through political parties, making it almost impossible to follow the influence of special-interest cash.

Architects of this ballot beauty were state Senate President John Burton, Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg, and others. No public testimony was allowed. “It came out of legislative council at 1:30 in the morning,” said Jim Knox of California Common Cause, “went to conference committee the next morning, and to the governor on the last day to put things on the ballot.”

To give their midnight monstrosity a decent chance of survival, its authors knew it had to be shielded from scrutiny. Using his power to select the author of the “No” argument in the ballot pamphlet, Burton stiff-armed traditional reform backers like Common Cause and the League of Women Voters who would have pointed out the measure’s weaknesses, stifled Senator Tom Hayden (one of two Senate votes opposed) and selected the feeblest kind of opposition — an argument by conservative Republican Bill Morrow that the measure is too mean to moneyed interests. In addition, the ballot pamphlet’s “for more information” section fails to list the measure’s principal opponents: the League, AARP-California and Common Cause.

Though Governor Davis is one of the main beneficiaries of the loopholes, he managed to maintain a discreet distance. And wisely so — a Gray Davis Campaign Reform Plan would have all the credibility of a John Belushi Drug Rehab Program. But don’t think the governor’s needs have not been well-protected. The none-too-stringent limits on gubernatorial giving — $40,000 per contributor — kick in after the 2002 election.

The deception involved in Proposition 37 is much simpler. Industries that menace public health are trying to keep from paying for damage their products inflict. Aptly dubbed the Polluter Protection Act by opponents like the American Cancer Society and the California League of Conservation Voters, Proposition 37 would reclassify fees for cleaning up ongoing health or environmental damages as “taxes,” thus (under the terms of Proposition 13) requiring a two-thirds vote of either the Legislature or local communities. If offending companies could sway one-third of either legislative house (as they usually can), they could block all efforts to make them foot the bill for their products’ damages. The issue arose over a law imposing fees on makers of lead-based paint to offset treatment costs for lead poisoning. When this was ruled constitutional, in 1997, the writing was on the wall for tobacco companies, alcohol purveyors, oil companies and sundry chemical emitters.

“What’s the difference between a tax on gasoline, utilities, [etc.,] and a government-imposed fee on those necessities?” proponents ask in their ballot argument. The answer they give (“Nothing”) is not correct. If the costs of treating tobacco-related illness are added to cigarette prices, then the numbers of consumers go down — and so do future cancer cases. Meanwhile smokers, rather than nonsmokers, bear most of the cost burden. If no fees are applied, we all pay, whatever our choice on exposing ourselves to tobacco’s risks. And the company has less incentive to develop a noncancerous nicotine product.

Nor does the oil company have any impetus to reduce pollutants in gasoline. Your tax dollars — via Medicare and Medi-Cal — will deal with the damage if it’s someone else’s emphysema or cancer. And you pay directly if it’s your own, which becomes somewhat more likely if this pollute-without-penalty proposition — brought to you by Philip Morris, Chevron, Texaco, major brewers and wineries, and others — fools enough voters to pass.

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