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California Voters: What You Need to Know About Important State Ballot Initiatives

From the death penalty to GMO foods to union-busting attacks, here's a breakdown of the most crucial propositions.
 
 
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This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.

With so much at stake nationally in this election, it may be hard to keep up with all the local issues, and especially hard to figure out how to vote on California's ballot initiatives. A really good, non-partisan roundup of all of them is available from public radio station KQED. If you're looking to cross-reference that with something more left-leaning, CREDO and the Courage Campaign teamed up to provide a Progressive Voter Guide that lets you compare how a whole bunch of progressive organizations stand on the ballot initiatives. (You can also download it to your phone by texting VOTECA to 30644.) And below, we take a look at some of the most crucial state-wide ballot initiatives.

Proposition 30: Temporary Taxes to Fund Education. Guaranteed Local Public Safety Funding. Initiative Constitutional Amendment.

Official Overview from the Secretary of State

This measure temporarily increases the state sales tax rate for all taxpayers and the personal income tax (PIT) rates for upper-income taxpayers. These temporary tax increases provide additional revenues to pay for programs funded in the state budget. The state's 2012-13 budget plan--approved by the Legislature and the Governor in June 2012--assumes passage of this measure.

In a Nutshell

Individuals making more than $250k and couples more than $500k a year would have an increase in their income tax for seven years. Sales tax would increase by a quarter of a cent for four years. The money generated (an estimated $6 billion over seven years), would help K-12 schools as well as community colleges, and public safety.

If the measure is not passed, it's bad news. KQED reports, "This year's state budget includes 'trigger cuts' if the measure fails. K-12 schools and community colleges would lose $5.35 billion. The University of California and California State University systems would each lose $250 million. City police departments, CalFire, the park system, flood control programs and others would also lose several million dollars each."

What People Are Saying

This is one of the most important fights on the California ballot and supported by most progressive organizations across the board as being essential for education. It's also endorsed by many major labor and education groups as well as most of the state's major newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. Here is what the Yes on 30 campaign says the proposition would do:

  • Stop another $6 billion in cuts to our schools this year. After years of cuts, our schools still face a $6 billion dollar budget deficit this year. If we do nothing, the cuts will get deeper.
  • Prop. 30 stops the cuts, provides billions in new funding for our schools starting this year --- supporting everything from smaller class sizes to afterschool programs.
  • Guarantee local public safety funding.
  • Prop. 30 establishes a guarantee for public safety funding in our state constitution, where it can't be touched without voter approval. This will keep cops on the street and save the state billions in prison costs over the long term.

Whose Side Are You On?

The list of endorsers for Prop 30 is huge. Check out the full list here

The No on Prop 30 site lists its sponsors as Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the National Federation of Independent Business California and Small Business Action Committee, with a full list of endorsers with one notable on the list that bears mentioning -- the Koch brothers' Americans for Prosperity. The No side has also been aligned with billionaire siblings Molly Munger and Charles Munger, Jr.

AlterNet's Steven Rosenfeld reported on a shadowy $11 million donation that came from Arizona GOP-linked donors and is helping to infuse the No on 30 and Yes on 32 campaigns (more on that below) with more Big Money dollars. 

For some more info, the Courage Campaign put together a video about the deep pockets behind No on Prop 30/Yes Prop 32, narrated by the "West Wing's" Bradley Whitford. 

Proposition 32: Political Contributions by Payroll Deduction. Contributions to Candidates. Initiative Statute.

Official Overview from the Secretary of State:

  • Prohibits unions from using payroll-deducted funds for political purposes. Applies same use prohibition to payroll deductions, if any, by corporations or government contractors.
  • Prohibits unions and corporations from contributing directly or indirectly to candidates and candidate-controlled committees.

In a Nutshell

This is a union-busting proposition, plain and simple. As KQED reports, "It prohibits organizations from using payroll deductions for any kind of political purpose, even if the employee has given permission. This prohibition primarily affects unions, since corporations raise political money through other means." And it does nothing to restrict political action committees, which is where the bulk of election spending is now funneled.

What People Are Saying

Yes on 30 and No on 32 are fast becoming rallying cries among progressives in California. The opposition camp seems to be funded through similar pocketbooks -- big money from conservative groups like Americans for Prosperity and its allies, including the Mungers. You can see a video about Charles Munger Jr. here

Whose Side Are You On?

You can view the list of No on 32 endorsers here -- it includes groups such as League of Women Voters of California, ACLU California, Equality California, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, California Federation of Teachers, Sierra Club California, SEIU and many others.

No on 32 reports, "An out-of-state super PAC with direct connections to the Koch brothers and Karl Rove has already spent more than $4 million supporting Prop 32. That kind of shadowy, secret campaign spending will be the law of the land if Prop 32 passes. It's also supported by the right-wing Lincoln Club of Orange County, a driving force behind Citizens United." You can read a story from Frying Pan News about the Lincoln Club here

KQED reports, "Two of California's top three billionaire spenders, Jerry Perenchi and Charles Munger, have donated substantially to Prop. 32."

Yes on 32 lists its supporters here -- mostly taxpayer organizations and local Chamber of Commerce groups. 

Prop 34: Death Penalty. Initiative Statute.

Official Overview from the Secretary of State:

  • Repeals death penalty as maximum punishment for persons found guilty of murder and replaces it with life imprisonment without possibility of parole.
  • Applies retroactively to persons already sentenced to death.
  • States that persons found guilty of murder must work while in prison as prescribed by the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, with their wages subject to deductions to be applied to any victim restitution fines or orders against them.
  • Directs $100 million to law enforcement agencies for investigations of homicide and rape cases.

In a Nutshell

This is an easy one: Prop 34 repeals the death penalty and replaces it with life in prison without the possibly of parole.

What People Are Saying

Repealing the death penalty has broad support among most progressive groups in California. Franky Carrillo has become an outspoken activist for the issue after spending 20 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. He tells his story in this ad in support of Pro 34. 

Yes on 34 supporters also point to an increase in savings for the state if the death penalty is eliminated. KQED reports:

Court proceedings to execute an inmate can take decades, according to the state Legislative Analyst's Office. The LAO estimates that if the death penalty is repealed the state and counties could save about $100 million annually in trial and appeals litigation and corrections costs; after several years that savings would grow to an estimated $130 million annually.

Those savings would be somewhat offset by a special fund the measure would create that sets aside $100 million for grants to local law enforcement to help investigate homicides and sex crimes. That money would come from the General Fund over four years. In 2009, about 47 percent of homicides and 68 percent of rapes were unsolved, according to the Attorney General's office.

Whose Side Are You On?

Yes on Prop 34 has assembled a diverse coalition that includes formerly incarcerated people who were exonerated (including those on death row), family members who've lost loved ones to homicides, law enforcement officials, and a former San Quentin warden. The endorsers number over 1,400 so far and can be found here.

No on Prop 34 endorsers include numerous law enforcement organizations, district attorneys, victim advocate organizations, among others.

Proposition 35: Human Trafficking. Penalties. Initiative Statute.

Official Overview from the Secretary of State

  • Increases criminal penalties for human trafficking, including prison sentences up to 15-years-to-life and fines up to $1,500,000.
  • Fines collected to be used for victim services and law enforcement.
  • Requires person convicted of trafficking to register as sex offender.
  • Requires sex offenders to provide information regarding Internet access and identities they use in online activities.

In a Nutshell

This is a tough one. Many progressive organizations are in favor of it, but not all. Everyone is in agreement that human trafficking is bad and child pornography is really bad. The difference of opinion is that not all are convinced the way this initiative is written is the best way to handle the issue.

What People Are Saying

KQED's election guide provides quite a bit of valuable information on this one. Supporters say:

The measure would prevent human trafficking through increased penalties, law enforcement training and monitoring.

The majority of funding for Prop. 35 comes from former Facebook executive Chris Kelly, who founded the Safer California Foundation. California Against Slavery, the California Police Chiefs Association and the Peace Officers Research Association of California also back the measure.

Opponents say:

The measure limits online free speech. The measure could make it harder to help victims leave sex work by ending the crime of misdemeanor prostitution. The measure could be challenged in court because including the "intent to distribute obscene matter" could be considered unconstitutionally vague and lengthening prison sentences could be considered cruel and unusual punishment.

The ACLU of Northern California has come out against the measure. The Erotic Providers Legal, Education and Research Project Inc. is the major opponent.

Whose Side Are You On?

A story by Amy Isackson paints a good picture of the motivations behind the proposition, including the story of Carissa Phelps, forced into sex work out of desperation. It also explains why people may not support the measure. Isackson writes, "But many prosecutors, defense attorneys, civil libertarians and legal scholars say existing laws are adequate. While Prop 35 is well-meaning, they say, it has unintended consequences. They say the law actually could put women in danger, make it more difficult to prosecute traffickers and infringe on constitutional rights."

Yes on 35 makes its case here

For more info about No on 35, check out this editorial.

Proposition 36: Three Strikes Law. Repeat Felony Offenders. Penalties. Initiative Statute. 

Official Overview from the Secretary of State:

  • Revises three strikes law to impose life sentence only when new felony conviction is serious or violent.
  • Authorizes re-sentencing for offenders currently serving life sentences if third strike conviction was not serious or violent and judge determines sentence does not pose unreasonable risk to public safety.
  • Continues to impose life sentence penalty if third strike conviction was for certain nonserious, nonviolent sex or drug offenses or involved firearm possession.
  • Maintains life sentence penalty for felons with nonserious, non-violent third strike if prior convictions were for rape, murder, or child molestation.

In a Nutshell

Right now, someone in California is serving a life sentence for stealing a $2 pair of socks. This would get rid of one of the harshest sentencing laws in the country.

What People Are Saying

Democracy Now! recently did a show about Prop 36. Here's their summary

Under California's three-strikes law, a person convicted of a felony who has two or more prior convictions for certain offenses must be sentenced to at least 25 years to life in state prison, even if the third offense is nonviolent. Critics have argued it is the harshest sentencing law in the United States. Life sentences have been handed down for stealing a pair of pants, shoplifting, forging a check and breaking into a soup kitchen. Although other states have three-strikes laws, California is the only state where a life sentence can be handed down for a nonviolent crime that could qualify as a misdemeanor, such as petty theft or drug possession.

Whose Side Are You On?

KQED has the breakdown of supporters. Those in favor say

The measure makes the punishment fit the crime. It would also save California millions of dollars annually and help with prison overcrowding.

Stanford Law School professor David Mills drafted the measure with lawyers from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, in consultation with law enforcement officials. The District Attorneys in San Francisco and Santa Clara support the measure. Major financial backers include David Mills, the NAACP and George Soros.

Those against say

The measure reduces prison sentences and could release criminals with previous violent felonies. They also argue that the measure is unnecessary as judges already have some leeway in deciding when to apply Three Strikes.

Most law enforcement organizations are against the measure, including: the California Police Chiefs Association, California State Sheriff's Association, California District Attorneys Association and Los Angeles Police Protective League. The Peace Officers Research Association of California is the main financial backer of the opposition campaign.

Proposition 37: Genetically Engineered Foods. Labeling. Initiative Statute.

Official Overview from the Secretary of State:

  • Requires labeling on raw or processed food offered for sale to consumers if made from plants or animals with genetic material changed in specified ways.
  • Prohibits labeling or advertising such food, or other processed food, as "natural."
  • Exempts foods that are: certified organic; unintentionally produced with genetically engineered material; made from animals fed or injected with genetically engineered material but not genetically engineered themselves; processed with or containing only small amounts of genetically engineered ingredients; administered for treatment of medical conditions; sold for immediate consumption such as in a restaurant; or alcoholic beverages.

In a Nutshell

This initiative is quite simple: GMO foods would be labeled (as they are in more than 40 other countries). This proposition doesn't take on the science of whether GMOs are harmful or not, but only that consumers should have the right to know what's in their food.

What People Are Saying

Prop 37 has a huge amount of support, unless you're Monsanto or a high-roller with the biotech and pesticide industries or corporations like PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Nestle, Del Monte, Kellogg and Hershey, to name a few. Big Food and Big Ag have teamed up big time to try and defeat Prop 37, pouring more than $36 million into the fight. Their big money (and misleading TV ads, featuring Henry I. Miller, frontman for Big Oil and Big Tobacco) have caused this initiative to go from slamdunk-win to toss-up in a matter of a month.

A recent piece on AlterNet debunks six big lies put forth by Monsanto and friends on the proposition. 

But the proposition is not just about what's in our food; it's a referendum on the state of our political affairs. As Ari LeVaux wrote on AlterNet, "More than anything, if the last two weeks are any indication, this campaign is shaping up to be about the place of money in politics and the power of television marketing."

Whose Side Are You On?

The Yes on 37 Right to Know Campaign is supported by

Most of the major health, faith, labor, environmental and consumer groups in California, including the California Nurses Association, California Democratic Party, California Labor Federation, United Farm Workers, American Public Health Association, Consumers Union, California Council of Churches IMPACT, Sierra Club, Whole Foods Market, Natural Resources Defense Council, Organic Consumers Association, Center for Food Safety, Consumer Federation of America, Pesticide Action Network, Center for Food Safety, Environmental Working Group, Breast Cancer Fund, Mercola Health Resources, Public Citizen, MoveOn and Food Democracy Now!

On the other side, here's a breakdown of the biggest spenders against Prop 37 and how much they've tossed in to the pot:

  • Monsanto: $7,100,500
  • DuPont: $4,900,000
  • BASF: $2,000,000
  • Bayer: $2,000,000
  • DOW: $2,000,000
  • Pepsi: $1,716,300
  • Coca-Cola: $1,164,446
  • Nestle: $1,169,400
  • ConAgra Foods: $1,076,700
  • Syngenta: $1,000,000

Proposition 39: Tax Treatment for Multistate Businesses. Clean Energy and Energy Efficiency Funding. Initiative Statute.

Official Overview From the Secretary of State:

  • Requires multistate businesses to calculate their California income tax liability based on the percentage of their sales in California.
  • Repeals existing law giving multistate businesses an option to choose a tax liability formula that provides favorable tax treatment for businesses with property and payroll outside California.
  • Dedicates $550 million annually for five years from anticipated increase in revenue for the purpose of funding projects that create energy efficiency and clean energy jobs in California.

In a Nutshell

"Multistate businesses would have to pay their income tax based on what percentage of their sales are in California," sums up KQED. "A company that sells one-quarter of its product here would pay income tax on one-quarter of total profit. Companies would no longer have a tax incentive to keep their California staff small."

It would also generate and estimated $1 billion annually, and for the first five years, half of that money would go into a Clean Energy Job Creation Fund, the rest goes to the general fund.

What People Are Saying

This may not be such a clear-cut proposition. The L.A. Times reports, "Polling on Prop. 39 indicates weak voter support and general confusion" and "The driving force behind Prop. 39 is hedge-fund billionaire Thomas F. Steyer of San Francisco, a Democratic donor and environmentalist."

But the Times explains:

Prop. 39 would treat all corporations the same, basing a company's tax solely on its in-state sales.

"We're trying to close a tax loophole that advantages out-of-state companies at the expense of California citizens," Steyer says.

Prop. 39 can be legitimately criticized for ungodly ballot-box budgeting, a California plague. All the new tax revenue should be poured into the general fund, helping to end deficit spending and balance the budget.

Steyer says he decided to use half the money for alternative energy because that would create thousands of jobs, "reduce our carbon footprint" and give voters an incentive to support the measure. They'd be reluctant, he figures correctly, to just turn all the money over to unpopular "Sacramento politicians."

Anyway, the Legislature has failed three times to plug the loophole. Democrats couldn't muster the handful of Republican votes needed for the required two-thirds majority.

Prop. 39 is what California's initiative system is all about, empowering citizens to act when Sacramento refuses -- assuming they can raise enough money. Steyer has pumped in nearly $22 million of his own wealth.

Whose Side Are You On?

You already know that Steyer is in favor it -- here's a list of other people. But who's against it? The L.A. Times says ... not too many people:

There is no funded opposition.

An out-of-state coalition of corporate heavy hitters, to use a baseball metaphor, backed off after Steyer threw a brushback pitch high, hard and inside.

Advised by veteran hardball strategist Chris Lehane, Steyer ran a threatening full-page newspaper ad featuring mug shots of "the big four tax dodgers" -- the heads of General Motors, Kimberly-Clark, International Paper and Chrysler.

The CEOs retreated to the bench.

The California Chamber of Commerce opposes the measure, but quietly.

The chief opposition spokesman seems to be Jack Stewart, president of the California Manufacturers and Technology Assn.

Tara Lohan is a freelance writer and former senior editor at AlterNet. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis, including Water Matters: Why We Need to Act Now to Save Our Most Critical Resource. Follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan or visit her website, taralohan.com.

 
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