Election Round-Up: The California Propositions

Welcome to the March 26 election. The fact that you`re reading this indicates that you may be one of the millions of Californians set to go to the polls on March 26 to vote on, among other things, a slew of ballot propositions facing voters this year. From mountain lions to school bonds; seismic safety to tort reform ... here`s a look at the measure, the motive and the money behind each of the 11 propositions headed for a voting booth near you.Proposition 192: Seismic Retrofit Bond Act of 1996 Should California`s taxpayers have to foot the bill to earthquake-proof toll bridges in the Bay Area? Nearly a third of the $2 billion in bonds authorized by Proposition 192 would be used for that purpose.It`s one of the reasons why state Assemblyman Bernie Richter, a Chico Republican, and others are opposing a measure that would provide seismic retrofits for 1,100 bridges throughout the state.The Planning and Conservation League and a number of other environmental and transit advocacy groups are also opposed. They say the ballot initiative would only shift more money into new highway construction at the expense of schools, higher education, parks and other critical needs.Seismic retrofitting already is a priority for the $2.4 billion we pay each year in gas taxes. Prop. 192 would simply substitute expensive debt-financing from the state`s general fund for the gas taxes, which would be diverted into new road building, according to PCL`s Gerald Meral. Taxpayers would have to shell out $1.4 billion in interest payments to repay the bonds over a 25-year period, according to the state`s Legislative Analyst. Environmentalists say the measure would also weaken Californian`s most basic environmental protection law by exempting retrofit projects from environmental review.Supporters of the initiative include big construction companies, the California Chamber of Commerce and state Senator Ken Maddy, a Fresno Republican who sponsored the measure in the Legislature. They say it would allow the state to speed up the retrofitting of bridges and avoid the more costly reconstruction needed after earthquakes strike.The big contractors are expected to pony up at least $2 million to win passage of the proposition. Contributors include heavy equipment-manufacturer Caterpillar, which has donated $50,000, and Watsonsville-based Granite Construction, which plunked down $75,000.Proposition 193: Grandparent to Grandchild InheritanceThis ballot initiative would amend the state`s constitution to allow some grandchildren to inherit real estate property from their grandparents without having to pay the higher property taxes brought on by a reappraisal of the property`s market value. Such an exemption already exists for children inheriting or buying property from their parents.The effect of the measure would be fairly minimal since an exemption on the sale or transfer of the property would be allowed only in specific, limited cases: Both parents of the grandchild must be deceased, and the exemption can only be claimed on one principal residence and the first $1 million of other property. Although schools, counties, cities and special districts would lose property taxes because of the initiative, the losses would amount to only $1 million annually, according to the Legislative Analyst.Supporters of the initiative include state Assemblyman David Knowles, a Cameron Park Republican who won passage of the measure in the Legislature. No significant opposition exists.Proposition 194: Prisoner UnemploymentThis ballot initiative would prevent prisoners who participate in state prison work programs from collecting unemployment benefits after they get out of jail. It`s largely a philosophical issue, since the overall fiscal effect of the measure is predicted to be minor.Chief sponsor is state Senate Republican Leader Rob Hurtt, a conservative lawmaker from Orange County. Chief opponent is Friends Committee on Legislation, a public interest group with ties to the Quakers.The measure involves the state Department of Corrections` joint venture program, which allows private businesses to set up joint venture operations on prison grounds and hire inmates to work for them. The businesses still pay unemployment insurance taxes on prisoners, and inmates are allowed to collect unemployment after getting released from prison. Proponents say Prop. 194 "will stop this nonsense'' of giving unemployment to prisoners. Opponents say public safety will suffer when inmates leaving prison cannot plan on a stable source of income until they find a job.Proposition 195: Punishment for Special Circumstances and CarjackingProposition 196: Punishment for Murder, Special Circumstances and Drive-by ShootingsThese two related measures would authorize the death penalty or life imprisonment in murder cases involving a number of special circumstances. They were put on the ballot with the overwhelming support of a Legislature eager to show the public that it`s getting tough on crime. Death-penalty opponents are against the two initiatives.Proposition 195 would add to statutes the death penalty or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for murder committed during a carjacking and murder resulting from a carjacking kidnap. It also would authorize death or life imprisonment for the intentional murder of a juror in retaliation for the performance of a juror`s official duties. Proposition 196 would authorize the death penalty and life for murder committed during drive-by shootings.Under current statutes, first-degree murder during a carjacking or a carjacking kidnap is punishable by death or life imprisonment without parole only if the offender was convicted of robbery or kidnapping. The first-degree murder of a juror is punishable by a sentence of 25-years-to-life with the possibility of release and parole. Drive-by murderers get 25-years-to-life with the possibility of parole.Prop. 195 will probably result in minor additional state costs, while the impact of Prop. 196 is unknown, according to the Legislative Analyst. Eventually, it could cost the state several millions a year.A rebuttal by death-penalty opponents in the state`s official ballot pamphlet says: "The death penalty has failed whenever and wherever it has been tried. Enactment of Proposition 195 would extend this failed policy, draining resources needed for our children`s education and for improvement of human life.''Proposition 197: Mountain Lions, RevisitedThis measure would nullify the California Wildlife Protection Act of 1990 (Proposition 117) by allowing the state`s mountain lions to be hunted once again. Their numbers have risen since then, leading to more sightings of the elusive creatures and two deathly attacks on Californians in 1994. The initiative was sponsored by Sacramento-area Sen. Tim Leslie, a Republican from Tahoe City. Hunting of mountain lions would be managed by the state Fish & Game Commission.Supporters say hunting of the animals must be allowed because they`re threatening the health and safety of the state`s citizens. Animal rights activists and other opponents say the measure is primarily the work of trophy hunters, who want lion heads to hang in their dens. Financing of the initiative`s campaign seems to bear that out; as of Feb. 10, backers had raised nearly $200,000 for the initiative`s campaign, with the bulk of it coming from sportsmen`s organizations. Agriculture has also kicked in some as well.The Legislative Analyst says the initiative would require state Fish & Game to finance the mountain lion hunting program by taking $250,000 each year from land acquisition money in the agency`s Habitat Conservation Fund. After 1999, the program would need $100,000 each year. Additionally, the Legislature directed that an additional $250,000 be appropriated each year from other sources for public safety and public information programs related to mountain lions.Proposition 198: Open Primary ElectionThis proposition allows California`s voters to vote for any candidate in a primary election regardless of the candidate`s political affiliation and provides for a single primary ballot on which the names of all candidates are placed. In the state`s existing primary election system, voters must be registered to a specific party at least 30 days prior to election day and are prevented from cross-voting among different parties in the election.The measure appeals to the growing number of independent voters who are locked out of the primaries. Backers include U.S. Rep. Tom Campbell, a moderate South Bay Republican; former state Sen. Becky Morgan, another Republican moderate; state Sen. Lucy Killea, an independent; and Eugene Lee, the former director of the Institute of Government Studies at Berkeley. Opponents include the leaders of the California Republican Party and California Democratic Party.Supporters say the initiative would encourage voter participation in one of the nation`s most closed primary election systems, make elections more competitive and politicians more responsive. Opponents say the measure would destroy the principle of party integrity by allowing the members of one party to choose the candidates of another. They note that New Hampshire`s open primary allowed independents to turn out in large numbers last month for Pat Buchanan.The Legislative Analyst says the proposition would have no direct fiscal impact on the state, and counties would gain minor savings due to the preparation of fewer ballots.Proposition 199: Limits on Mobilehome Rent ControlOne of the most controversial initiatives on this election`s ballot, Prop. 199 is basically a showdown between a group of mobile home park owners and the thousands of seniors who live in the state`s 5,800 mobile home parks.The proposition would phase out all local rent control laws affecting parks and prohibit new state and local rent control laws. Its backers say the initiative is designed to assist needy seniors, because it also gives a 10-percent rent discount to low-income seniors. But the Legislative Analyst points out that landlords could use various reasons to end the discount, including late rent payments of only six days.The initiative has been branded "The Phony Rental Assistance Initiative'' by a coalition that includes mobile home park tenants, labor unions, the state`s Democratic lawmakers and the nationally potent American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). Plus, the initiative has been blasted on editorial pages of many of the state`s newspapers.A big chunk of the initiative`s financing came from Jeffrey Kaplan and Thomas Tatum, two elusive Southern California business partners who own a number of mobile home parks, Secretary of State records show. Their money was used primarily to qualify the initiative for the ballot.Opponents claim the controversial duo were responsible for drafting the initiative and hiring Stoorza Ziegaus Metzger & Hunt, the high-powered political consulting firm that`s running the measure`s campaign. Kaplan and Tatum, notorious for bankrolling anti-rent control drives on a local level, have contributed about $150,000 to Prop. 199`s campaign and loaned it another $240,000. All total, the campaign has received more than $1.7 million from numerous park owners and endorsements from the California Republican Party, the California Chamber of Commerce and a number of taxpayer groups."This is the work of a couple of rogue mobile home park owners whose greed is unmatched by most other mobile home park owners, who are fair and honest in their dealings with tenants,'' said Ron Gray, spokesman for Golden State Mobilehome Owners League, a statewide mobile home park tenants association and the initiative`s chief opponent. Gray said the "fraudulent initiative pretends to provide rental assistance to needy tenants, but the only thing it will do is help thousands of elderly mobile home owners right out of their homes.''"There`s nothing fraudulent about 199,'' said Denis Wolcott, a Stoorza Ziegaus employee who is serving as spokesman for the "Yes on Prop. 199'' campaign. "We`re not trying to color this proposition in a way that highlights rental assistance. We`re trying to highlight rent control, although rental assistance is important.'' Wolcott said the initiative makes sense because rent ceilings are a failed government policy that "actually harms residents more than it helps them.''Propositions 200, 201 and 202: Three tort reform measures--No-Fault Auto Insurance; Losing Party Pays Attorneys` Fees; Limit Attorneys` Contingent FeesProbably the most monumental measures on this year`s ballot, these three initiatives are basically designed to limit legal fees and lawsuits in one way or another. Controversy has swirled around the campaign for their passage.The three initiatives are officially sponsored by the Alliance to Revitalize California, a consumer-business partnership that was set up last year partly by Bill Zimmerman. He`s one of the founders of Voter Revolt, the consumer group that won passage of Proposition 103, the landmark measure that attempted to regulate auto insurance company rates and profits. Against the measures are trial lawyers and most of the state`s and country`s leading consumer groups and consumer advocates, including Ralph Nader and Harvey Rosenfield, who co-founded Voter Revolt with Zimmerman, but has since split from the group.Critics claim the ideas for the three tort initiatives come from insurance companies and Republican think tanks. The biggest financial backers of the three measures are Silicon Valley corporations and other companies that have been stung by huge shareholder lawsuits. Meanwhile, trial lawyers are putting up big sums of money to defeat the three measures. Some of the largest donations have come from big East Coast law firms.Proposition 200--the no-fault auto measure would require insurers to pay benefits regardless of who is at fault in most motor vehicle accidents. Suits against another driver are prohibited unless the accident involves a crime such as drunken driving. No-fault has been on the ballot before and lost. The Legislative Analyst points out that this measure would have several fiscal effects on state and local governments. It would result in major annual savings and major annual revenue losses, but the net impact is unknown.Proposition 201--the measure would require a losing party to pay a winning party`s reasonable attorneys` fees and expenses in shareholder actions against corporations. The same would hold true in class actions based on securities law violations. It would also impose a number of other restrictions on litigation. Fiscal impact on government is unknown, but it will probably be minor.Proposition 202--limits contingency fees of plaintiffs` attorneys in suits involving personal injury, wrongful death and other tort cases. Its fiscal impact also is unknown and could result and either savings or losses for government, according to the Legislative Analyst.Zimmerman has said passage of the no-fault measure will save money for insurance companies, who will have to pass on those savings to consumers because of the mandates of Proposition 103. A recent article in the San Francisco Bay Guardian summed up the arguments of opponents: "It has become clear that Voter Revolt and its allies are counting on combining anti-lawyer ire and favorable recognition of the Voter Revolt name to win voter approval of its package of pro-corporate initiatives--at the expense of consumers.''Proposition 203: Public Education Facilities Bond Act of 1996This measure would authorize $3 billion in bonds to help upgrade and construct new classrooms, libraries and other needed facilities in California`s schools, community colleges and state universities. Education bond issues have had a bad track record in recent years, turned down by an electorate in a mood to cut taxes. But this measure has received endorsements from the League of Women`s Voters, the California Chamber of Commerce, the Congress of California Seniors and the California Professional Firefighters.The Legislative Analyst said these bonds will eventually cost taxpayers $5.21 billion, including $2.17 billion in interest payments. Big financial backers of the initiative include school administrators and teachers. The California Teachers Association recently dumped $90,000 into the campaign and the Association of School Administrators Issues PAC contributed $30,000.The chief opponent is the Libertarian Party of California.

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