Referendum Madness: A Quick Look at How Calif. Election Propositions Measure Up

After facing 12 ballot measures in the March primary, voters now face a mind-numbing group of 15 initiatives on Nov. 5. There's enough controversy in this crop for three elections, including propositions that seek to legalize medical marijuana, end affirmative action, reform campaign financing, reform tort awards, regulate HMOs and increase the minimum wage. Call it referendum madness.In a battle over the future direction of the state, and in some respects the nation, citizen groups, consumer attorneys and labor unions have contributed millions to influence the election. Not surprisingly, their offerings have been dwarfed by those of big corporations and businesses, which have laid out tens of millions of dollars to political action committees (PACs) in moves aimed at defeating many of the consumer-oriented ballot measures.The financing schemes by general-purpose committees (a certain kind of PAC set up to support more than one candidate or ballot measure) have grown so complex that even the Secretary of State's office admits that it can no longer accurately trace the web of contributions and expenditures. For example, one loophole allows general-purpose committees to avoid filing late contribution reports, which disclose within 24 hours any contributions of $1,000 or more received during the 16-day period prior to an election. In a report released this month, the secretary of state is vowing to sponsor legislation in 1997 to correct the problem, saying the complicated financing schemes have thwarted the basic goal of the state's Political Reform Act.Here's a thumbnail sketch to help weary voters wade through the ballot on election day. For more detailed information, explore the Internet Web page of California Voter Foundation at This site can link Internet-surfing political junkies into dozens of other sites on the World Wide Web that provide even more information on this fall's 15 referendums. BOND MEASURESProposition 204 This measure could be renamed "the mother of all water bonds.'' It authorizes $995 million in general-obligation bonds for a variety of water projects around the state and represents the most sizable investment in water infrastructure since the mammoth Central Valley Project was funded by voters in 1960. But government will have to pay back $1.8 billion over a 25-year period once interest is added in.More than half of the money goes to long-needed wildlife restoration and other enhancements for the Bay-Delta region, an expenditure that's expected to end the state's decades-old water wars. In fact, the initiative was launched by an unusual coalition of environmental groups, farmers, water agencies and businesses. After passage, the Bay-Delta improvements still require the completion of an environmental impact report and an agreement on federal cost-sharing.More than $360,000 has been contributed toward the initiative's passage. Sizable contributions have been made by BankAmerica Corp., Chevron Corp., the California Farm Bureau Federation, the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy. The only significant opposition to the measure is the Libertarian Party, which traditionally opposes all bond measures.Proposition 205More than 70,000 adults are in jail or prison in California, and more than 50,000 juvenile offenders are under the supervision of the state. But the public's get-tough-on-crime stance has created a need for even more prisons. This measure approves $700 million in general-obligation bonds to pay for new prisons and correctional facilities for juveniles and adults. With interest, taxpayers would have to pay back about $1.25 billion over 25 years.The initiative is designed to try to deal with overcrowding in the state's jails, which was made worse by the state's infamous "Three Strikes'' law. The Legislative Analyst says that in 1995, more than 21,000 persons were released early from jail each month. The state will need an additional 30,000 prison beds by the year 2000.Key supporters include crime-victim groups, the California State Sheriffs' Association, the California Police Chiefs Association and the California District Attorneys' Association. The only significant opponent is the Libertarian Party.Proposition 206This measure authorizes $400 million in general-obligation bonds that would be used for farm and home loans for California veterans. It will ultimately cost taxpayers about $700 million over the 25-year payback period, but the program has largely been self-supporting in years past. Supporters include veteran groups and the California Association of Realtors. Again, the only significant opponent is the Libertarian Party.TORT REFORMSProposition 207Proposition 207 was launched by the state's trial lawyer association in response to Proposition 202, an initiative on the ballot last March that was supported by large corporations. Prop. 202 would have put a cap on lawyer contingency fees in legal settlements. Trial lawyers say the contingency arrangement is the only way many consumers can afford legal redress through the courts, because attorneys agree to work for free in exchange for a significant percentage of any final court settlement.Voters turned down Prop. 202 in March, but trial lawyers were already moving forward with their own counterpunch in the form of Prop. 207, which didn't make it on the March ballot but qualified for Nov. 5. This initiative would protect contingency fees by making it more difficult for the Legislature to put a cap on them. Although Prop. 202 was defeated, the Consumer Attorneys of California say it's still needed because businesses are always pushing the Legislature to limit contingency-fee arrangements. In a bow to opponents, the measure increases sanctions against lawyers who file bona-fide frivolous lawsuits. The corporate world argues that Prop. 207 will encourage too many frivolous lawsuits.The trial attorneys have already spent more than $6 million to win passage of the initiative. Tracking contributions against this initiative is difficult because of the way businesses used the general-purpose committees. The California Business Political Action Committee, a group sponsored by the California Chamber of Commerce, has raised substantial sums from the corporate world and then routed this money into the campaigns for or against about seven different measures on this fall's ballot. Some of its largest contributions came from Pepsico, which donated $50,000, and Philip Morris, which contributed $50,000.Proposition 211This initiative has made Wall Street uneasy. The California Journal, one of the state's leading political magazines, calls it "a far-reaching package of measures'' that would make it easier for individual shareholders to file stock fraud suits in state court. In some respects, the measure is a response to reforms passed last year in Congress that make it more difficult for shareholders to file suits over securities fraud in federal courts. Opponents say it would drive businesses and jobs out of the state by making California's state courts a magnet for frivolous lawsuits that are no longer eligible for federal court.The initiative's main backers include San Diego tort attorney William Lerach and other plaintiffs' attorneys. They have rounded up the support of some senior and labor groups and have cast the proposition as a method to protect retirement funds and the savings of seniors. The opponents include much of the state's business community, including many of the same big Silicon Valley firms that supported tort reform in California's March election. In an effort to woo the state's business community, both President Clinton and Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole are opposing 211.Opponents have already spent more than $26 million to defeat this measure. A few of the many big donors to the "No on 211'' campaign include San Jose-based Cisco Systems, which contributed $600,000, and the American Insurance Association, which contributed $350,000.Proposition 213Proposition 213 would limit the ability of uninsured drivers and drunk drivers to sue after being in an auto accident. These drivers would still be able to seek damages for medical benefits, lost wages and vehicle damage, but couldn't go after "pain and suffering'' awards.The measure is sponsored by state Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush, an industry-friendly conservative. Quackenbush claims that drunk drivers and uninsured motorists cost law-abiding drivers millions of dollars each year. Leading opponents include the state's trial lawyers association and Harvey Rosenfield, author of Proposition 103, the auto insurance reform measure. They say Prop. 213 would unfairly target minorities, students and poor people who can't afford car insurance.CAMPAIGN FINANCE REFORMPropositions 208 and 212Last year reform-minded groups tried to join forces, but splintered over strategy, resulting in bitter competition between these two campaign finance reform measures.Prop. 208 would amount to facelift reform rather than a radical overhaul of California's corporate-dominated campaign finance system, which is without limits on contributions or spending. Prop. 208 is pushed by Californians for Political Reform, a coalition that includes Common Cause, the American Association of Retired Persons, Ross Perot's United We Stand and the League of Women Voters. It offers "voluntary'' reform in which candidates who agree to limit overall spending are rewarded with the ability to accept larger contributions.Prop. 208's voluntary spending limits range from $100,000 in an Assembly primary to $8 million for the gubernatorial general election. Contribution limits are $1,000 in an election cycle for statewide races and $500 in a legislative race. Both figures double if a candidate agrees to limit spending.Prop. 212, meanwhile, is spearheaded by the California Public Interest Research Group, an organization spawned by Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader. It's a more stringent system that is also more likely to be struck down by a judge, since the Supreme Court in 1976 ruled that campaign contributions should be viewed as expression, and therefore be granted the same freedoms as speech. This proposition is designed to re-fight that battle, since supporters say the two-decade-old ruling obstructs real change.Prop. 212's mandatory contribution limits restrict contributions to statewide races to $200 per election and $100 for primary elections. Its mandatory spending limits would range from $75,000 in an Assembly primary to $5 million in a gubernatorial primary.Another of Prop. 212's strictures that could be struck down in court requires that 75 percent of candidates' funds come from within their district. Each of these propositions has at least one large loophole. And Prop. 212 contains a "poison pill'' that says if it receives more votes, its competing measure will not go into effect, whatever the courts decide.Prop. 212's supporters have contributed nearly $2 million toward the measure's campaign. High-profile contributors include musician Bonnie Raitt and the California Teachers Association, which gave the campaign $600,000. Supporters of Prop. 208 have raised close to $1 million for its passage. Large contributors include Common Cause, which made a $120,000 donation to the campaign, and theAmerican Association of Retired Persons, which donated $84,755. How you vote may come down to personality. Do you prefer to gamble on an idealistic measure that could easily be wiped out in the courts, or on a pragmatic, weaker measure that may not level the playing field?BANNING AFFIRMATIVE ACTIONProposition 209The ultra-conservative backers of Prop. 209 call it the California Civil Rights Initiative. But their goal is to repeal most of the state's affirmative action programs, which are designed to increase educational, job and business opportunities for women and racial and ethnic minorities. Prop. 209 prohibits all levels of California government from discriminating against or giving preferential treatment to any individual or group based on sex, race, color, ethnicity or national origin.That wording was the brain child of two white males from Northern California--Tom Wood, a philosopher by training, and Glynn Custred, an anthropology professor. But Wood and Custred have been supported by leading Republicans, including state Assemblyman Bernie Richter, a Republican from Chico, Gov. Pete Wilson and Ward Connerly, a University of California regent who is black.They also have received more than $2 million in contributions, including sizable chunks from conservatives throughout the country. Richard M. Scaife, the Pittsburgh-based businessman who formerly owned the Sacramento Union, gave $100,000 to the campaign. The California Republican Party donated about $780,000 A diverse coalition of groups are opposed to this measure. Opponents include civil rights groups, college professors, Pacific, Gas & Electric Co., League of Women Voters President Fran Packard, and a number of Democratic lawmakers. These groups say Prop. 209 will harm women and minorities by eliminating affirmative action and promote division in communities. The opposition has raised more than $1.2 million, mostly through small contributions.MINIMUM WAGEProposition 210This measure would raise the minimum wage in California for all industries from the current $4.25 per hour to $5 per hour on March 1, 1997, and then to $5.75 per hour on March 1, 1998. The state minimum wage was last raised in 1988. Currently, about 2 million workers, or one-sixth, of California's 13 million workers earn less than $5.75 per hour.Supporters of the initiative include labor unions, senior groups and religious and community organizations. They say the buying power of the current minimum wage is at a 40-year low. The present minimum wage puts a family of three at 32 percent below the federal poverty line. Supporters have raised more than $1.3 million. Big donors include the AFL-CIO's California Labor Federation, which dropped about $170,000 into the campaign, and the California Teachers Association Issues PAC, which gave $103,000.Opponents -- a coalition of restaurants, small businesses and food service industry associations -- say the measure will put a major financial burden on small businesses, forcing them to make layoffs. They have raised nearly $500,000. The California Restaurant Associations Issues PAC gave $130,000 to the campaign, and the National Restaurant Association donated $50,000.HEALTH CARE REFORMPropositions 214 and 216These two measures are part of a growing backlash against the rising power of health maintenance organizations or HMOs, which now dominate the state's health-care market, insuring more than 13 million people, or about half of the state's insured population.HMOs have become very popular on Wall Street by cutting health-care costs and maximizing their own profits. They do this by giving doctors and hospitals a fixed amount of money to pay for all treatment for a specific pool of patients. The practice has kept more people out of the hospital, but it has led to layoffs of nurses and other health care workers.Nurses, patients and some doctors say HMOs are now unfairly denying patients access to legitimate health care procedures and are actually endangering the lives of the patients they take care of.The idea for Proposition 216 was suggested by Green Party presidential candidate and consumer advocate Ralph Nader. He hooked up the California Nurses Association with his California counterpart--Harvey Rosenfield. Together, they drafted Prop. 216, a comprehensive set of new regulations known as the Patient Protection Act.It bans direct financial payments to doctors for withholding care. It also prohibits gag orders, something that HMOs use to keep doctors and nurses from criticizing an HMO's patient-care decisions. Additionally, the measure requires HMOs to use third-party referees in cases where they disagree with the decisions of their own physicians. And the initiative sets strict standards for nurse and physician staffing levels in hospitals and sets up a consumer watchdog agency. It also imposes annual fees of about $5 billion on HMOs and hospitals, money that would be used to finance care for uninsured poor patients. Nader calls them "greed fees'' because they are imposed on an industry that sucks millions of dollars out of the health care system to feed the hungry pockets of Wall Street shareholders.The Service Workers International Union (SEIU), which represents a significant number of the state's health care workers, originally joined forces with nurses and Rosenfield. However, SEIU disagreed with the imposition of fees on HMOs and hospitals, and it split off and joined up with other consumer groups to launch 214. This measure is nearly identical to 216, except it leaves out the industry fees and it's more easily overturned by the state Legislature.The main opponent to both initiatives is known as Taxpayers Against Higher Health Costs. The group, which has raised more than $5 million to defeat Props. 214 and 216, bills itself as a coalition of nurses, business, seniors, taxpayers, insurers and hospitals. But most of its money has come from big HMOs: Kaiser Permanente has contributed $785,000 to the cause and CaliforniaCare, the HMO operated by Blue Cross of California, has contributed $550,000. The opponents claim the two measures are simply job protection acts for nurses and health care workers. They also say the measures would raise taxes and health care costs for everyone. However, the Legislative Analyst points out that the two initiatives do not impose any direct taxes or costs on individuals. Supporters of the two measures have raised nearly $3 million, most of it from individual nurses and union members in the form of small contributions.MEDICAL MARIJUANAProposition 215This measure would legalize the use of marijuana for medical purposes, as long as it was recommended by an attending physician. Terminally ill patients facing AIDS or cancer have found that smoking marijuana can ease the nausea associated with chemotherapy treatments.The battle over this initiative has been one of the most fractious and controversial issues of the election. Supporters, which include doctors, nurses and Democratic lawmakers, put Prop. 215 on the ballot after similar legislation was twice vetoed by Gov. Wilson in the past two years. However, pools now indicate that a majority of voters support the measure.Leading opponents include state Attorney General Dan Lungren and the state's narcotic officers. They say the definition of illnesses for which the drug can be used is too broad. They also contend the initiative would allow unlimited quantities of marijuana to be grown anywhere. Additionally, they say it would destroy efforts to convince young people to remain drug-free.Controversy over the initiative heated up in recent months after Lungren raided the Cannabis Buyers' Club, a San Francisco organization that distributes marijuana to AIDS victims and cancer patients with the approval of San Francisco city officials. Key members of that organization also are running the "Yes on 215'' campaign. They claim the timing of Lungren's raid was political, leading a number of state Democratic lawmakers to ask federal officials to investigate whether Lungren's activities violated civil rights laws. Lungren has denied such charges and has been livid because political cartoonist Garry Trudeau has been lampooning Lungren's Cannabis Buyer's Club raid in his Doonesbury cartoon.TAX REVENUE FOR SCHOOLS AND COMMUNITIESProposition 217This measure is designed to boost state revenues by as much as $900 million a year by raising the tax rate on people who earn more than $100,000 annually. About half of the money would go to schools, and the other half to local governments.In recent years, California lawmakers lowered the ceiling for the tax bracket on high-wage earners to 9.3 percent. It was designed to please the business community and keep the state's economy sputtering during a recessionary period. Prop. 217 would reinstate a 10 percent tax rate that had been eliminated in previous years. The 10 percent would apply to individuals with more than $100,000 in taxable income beginning with the 1996 tax year. Individuals making more than $200,000 would face an 11 percent tax rate.Key supporters of this initiative include the California Tax Reform Association, California Federation of Teachers, Peace Officers Research Association, and the League of Women Voters of California. They say Prop. 217 will help schools and local governments, which have been hurt by the property tax "grabs'' of state officials.Key opponents include the California Taxpayers Association and the National Federation of Independent Business. These groups dismiss Prop. 217 as a tax increase that will put a damper on the state's resurging economy.Proposition 218This measure is sponsored by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and Paul Gann's Citizen Committee--the same two conservative groups that were responsible for the passage of Proposition 13 in the 1970s. While Prop. 13 limited the ability of local governments to raise property taxes, municipalities have been able to use some loopholes to get around the initiative's original intent.Prop. 218 would limit local governments' use of fees, assessments and taxes. It requires that fees and assessments can only be used for specified purposes and not for areas such as libraries and public safety that benefit the general public. All new fees and assessments would also have to be approved in an election by a majority of property owners. But the election would require a draconian proportional voting system that would give larger property owners' ballots more weight than smaller property owners. Not surprisingly, big property owners like this idea of democracy, because it gives them a larger degree of control. Proponents say Prop. 218 would finally end local governments' "end run'' around Prop. 13. Opponents include the League of Women Voters of California, the California Congress of Seniors, the California Teachers' Association and local law enforcement and fire protection groups. They argue that Prop. 218 will mean financial disaster for local services. The Legislative Analyst estimates that Prop. 218 would mean an annual loss of about $100 million for local governments. Nick Budnick contributed to this report.

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