Big Money in Initiatives Isn't New

Michael Hiltzik tells us at the Los Angeles Times that California’s initiative system is big, noisy, and expensive. The role of big money shouldn’t be accepted as “the new normal,” he argues.

He’s right about not settling for what we have. Like a lot of people, he’s wrong about this year being something new.

Big money from wealthy political players and interest groups has been part of the process all along. Before there was Tom Steyer, the San Francisco hedge fund operator behind Prop 39, there was Rudolph Spreckels, the San Francisco sugar magnate, behind Hiram Johnson and the creation of the initiative.

Current figures suggest that spending on this year’s initiatives will top $360 million, or about $20 per eligible voter. That’s a lot of money. The spending per voter is about twice what Nike spends each year per Californian to sell us shoes and sports gear. It’s also more than the $285 million that organizations and individuals spent last year to lobby the Legislature. But then we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s a lot more expensive to communicate with 18.2 million voter-legislators than it is to communicate with the 120 people we send to the state Capitol to represent us.

But adjusted for inflation and the growth of the number of voters in the state, this year’s initiative campaigns will spend less than was spent on initiatives in 1988 or 1998, two other big years full of controversial measures. What Hiltzik calls the “new normal” is, regrettably, just normal.

How to Fix Prop 29

Proposition 29, the tobacco tax measure on the June 5 ballot, makes for a hard choice. I have no problem with raising tobacco taxes. California needs the revenue, and higher tobacco taxes would save lives by discouraging smoking. But using the new revenue for cancer research makes no sense at all. America already spends billions on that research, and California has higher priorities.

What to do? Here is where the Legislature could help us out, and at the same time show a bit bipartisanship.

Lawmakers may disagree about taxes, but I doubt a single member of the Assembly or the Senate believes that cancer research is a higher priority than funding schools and colleges. After all, what is the sense of funding cancer research in a state where you can't even educate children about science or produce the next generation of scientists?

So let the Legislature put a new measure on the November ballot. Call it the Tobacco Tax Recovery and Education Restoration Act of 2012. Let it provide for shifting all of the tobacco taxes enacted in the three initiatives of the last several decades—Props 88, 10, and 29—to the general fund. Let it state the Legislature’s intent to use the money to restore funding for schools and colleges cut over the last several years.

Such a measure would have several important effects.

First, it would let voters have the choice Prop 29 doesn’t provide: of raising tobacco taxes but sending the money to their most important priority.

Second, it would send a cautionary message to potential sponsors of ballot-box budgeting initiatives. It would tell them that they cannot loot the California revenue base with impunity, that the Legislature will fight back to assure the voters have a choice about how new revenues should be used. That’s a message that should appeal to Republicans and Democrats alike.