California Props
Published on March 06, 2000

I know you're not all from California -- although aren't we, really, in some sense? And from New York? And Paris! Ich bin ein Berliner!

Anyway, having spent a good chunk of my life trying to pass three excellent California ballot initiatives four years ago -- Props 200, 201 and 202 -- I have some sense how tough this game is, and how easy it is for the opponents of a good initiative to defeat it or, I fear, proponents of a bad initiative, if it's pitched right, to get it passed.

The first California initiative that entered the national consciousness was Prop 13, many years ago. (The numbers assigned to propositions start at 1 and rise up into the hundreds over the years and then get reset to 1 again, as recently happened.)

It's usually easier to get people to vote NO than YES, but Prop 13's promise to rein in California property taxes passed, and touched off a lot of similar passion around the country.

Aspects of Prop 13 were definitely appealing, even to a public policy wonk. But as Richard Reeves pointed out in a long article in Money after it had been in effect for several years, Prop13 really gummed up the state's finances -- and with them, the state's ability to educate its kids.

So ballot initiatives are tricky things, though with the legislature in gridlock much of the time -- at least in California -- I wouldn't be quick to eliminate them.

Of the 20 or so measures on tomorrow's ballot, here -- for what my opinion is worth, and with apologies to those of you who will be canceling your subscriptions and demanding your money back -- are the ones I think I understand:

Prop 22 - Limit on Marriage. This is the so-called Knight Initiative, named after the state legislator who introduced it. It is opposed by, for starters, Knight's own gay son, but also by a 12-page list of prominent officals and organizations, many of them religious. Even a few Republican legislators have come out against the Knight Initiative, not to mention KABC's conservative talk show host, Al Rantel, who did a full hour opposing it, mocking Knight for refusing to come on the air and discuss his own initiative.

You don't have to favor gay marriage to oppose Prop 22. It's divisive, intrusive, and unfair. No state permits same-sex marriage anyway, so it's a law in search of a problem. And in states where similar laws have been passed, the new law has been used to dismantle previously gained rights (domestic partner health insurance, adoption rights, visitation rights.). In fact, there is an effort underway now in California to ban ANY laws that have sexual orientation in them, so the recently passed domestic partner registry, protection of gay kids at school, and employment nondiscrimination would all be overturned.

Legislation similar to Prop 22 has been sent through the state legislature three times and been voted down each time. I would vote NO.

Prop 23 - None of the Above. This initiative would place an additional choice on the ballot for each elected office: None of the Above. It may be telling that the main opposition seems to come from the Green Party, whose candidates may themselves currently function somewhat as a "none of the above" choice.

I actually like this one, even though I think it's almost always stupid to throw away one's vote, and so would rarely if ever choose it myself. I would vote YES.

Prop 25 - Campaign Finance Reform. This one's a little tougher, but if I were a Californian, I would give it a try. (California newspaper editorial boards are divided.) No campaign finance reform will be perfect, but this one has a lot of sensible elements. I have a lot of respect for Max Palevsky, a well-known, long-time Democrat, gave the Prop 25 people $1 million to try to help them get the word out. For the pros and cons of Prop 25, along with all the others, click here. Or just vote YES.

Prop 27 - Voluntary Congressional Term-Limit Pledges. Voluntary is better than mandatory, but I think term limits are a bad idea. The way to limit someone's term is to vote him out of office. In a complex world, it makes sense to have members of Congress develop areas of expertise, rather than start fresh every few years. I would vote NO.

Prop 28 - Tobacco Tax Repeal. This is the tobacco industry's attempt to overturn Prop 10 from November, 1998 -- the measure that actor/director Rob Reiner fought so hard to pass. Prop 10 was great. Overturning it is a terrible idea. I would vote NO -- several times, if I could.

Props 30 and 31 - Insurance Act Repeal. These propositions are born out of California's horrible auto insurance system, which is what my Proposition 200 in 1996 had hoped to fix. I won't take you through the whole thing (huge sighs of relief waft through cyberspace), but Prop 200 would have been a tremendous improvement for California drivers -- and for all but the "luckiest" amongst the seriously injured.

Props 30 and 31 sound good. They would let you sue my insurance company for bad faith if, after we got in a crash, you felt my insurer hadn't given you enough money. Indeed, for those victims today who are treated badly, as many are, these Propositions would be good.

But it's a trade-off, because these propositions would increase the already huge incentives to inflate and invent claims, and to sue.

Last I looked, three out of four injury claims in California were faked. (Michiganders claim whiplash after a car crash only about a fourth as often as Californians, because the Michigan system offers no incentive to fake claims.) But because pain does not show up on X-rays, there was no way to tell which three out of four. So most of the claims were -- grudgingly -- paid. You can imagine how expensive this is. Props 30 and 31 would make the insurance companies even less resistant to fighting suspect claims, and make cheaters even bolder in inflating or inventing their injuries. And the cost of all this would be passed on to -- guess who.

Anyway, it's a trade-off with no completely simple answer. The YES side is financed by the lawyers, who would make more money if Props 30 and 31 passed. The NO side is financed by the insurers. Knowing how much fraud and litigation is already inspired by the current system -- and that ultimately it is honest consumers who pay for it -- I'd vote NO.

What California drivers really need is to adopt the Michigan system (only making a bit more of an effort than Michigan to accommodate the poor).

But don't get me started.



1998, 1999, 2000, Andrew Tobias