It was a wonkish wonderland.
Capitol Weekly and Capital Public Radio combined forces Thursday to stage the first “California Votes” series of panel discussions on six of the most controversial ballot measures voters will face on Nov. 8.
The day was civil, with handshakes among the adversaries before and after they argued with one another. There was at least one hug between opponents. Even so, it was all about pro and con. Attendees enjoyed a full measure of explanation and argument, with accusations of misleading statements and truth-shading flying around the sleek auditorium of the secretary of state’s headquarters in downtown Sacramento.
Up for argument on five separate panels were Propositions 53, 55, 61, 62-66 and 64. They were selected from the 17 measures slated to appear on the statewide ballot.
Each featured four panelists — two for a ballot measure and two against. Here’s a brief rundown.
Proposition 53 is a constitutional amendment that would require statewide voter approval for revenue bonds exceeding $2 billion for projects financed, owned, operated or managed by the state.
Pro: Steven Greenhut, R Street Institute and newspaper columnist
Tom Ross, Meridian Pacific
Con: Brandon Castillo, Bicker Castillo Fairbanks Public Affairs
David Guy, Northern California Water Association
The main argument here revolved around local control. Opponents argued that voters in parts of the state far removed from the project would have an up or down vote on whether it should proceed. “Why should voters in Marin decide a project in Los Angeles?” asked opponent Brandon Castillo. “If I’m a Bay Area taxpayer, I don’t want LA deciding on my bridge, even though I’m paying for it (through bridge tolls),” he said.
But proponent Steven Greenhut, no fan of government spending, countered that taxpayers should have an accounting for the money involved, “even though it’s going to be misspent anyway.” He added, “I don’t trust politicians to spend our money wisely.”
The projects that would be affected by Proposition 53 are of statewide import, and should therefore be decided by a statewide vote, Greenhut argued. Taxpayers should have another mechanism for holding public agencies accountable because they otherwise are “united in plunder,’ he argued.
Dean Cortopassi, a Stockton area farmer and business executive, is the chief backer of Prop. 53. Opponent Brandon Castillo accused Cortopassi of making a “politically cute” move by using Proposition 53 to derail Governor Jerry Brown’s cherished twin tunnels project, which Cortopassi opposes.
Opponent David Guy also noted that local joint-powers agreements could be threatened by Proposition 53, potentially blocking the construction of infrastructure, even though it is strongly supported by local governments, such as reservoirs.
Proposition 55 extends income tax increases approved via Proposition 30 in 2012 and allocates the revenue for K-12 schools, community colleges and health care programs.
Pro: Dave Low, California School Employees Association
Ana Matosantos, former state finance director
Con: Kaitlyn MacGregor, California Republican Party
David Wolfe, Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association
Continuing the income tax levels established as a “temporary” increase in 2012 would be “a huge breach of public trust,” said Kaitlyn MacGregor. She argued that Proposition 30 was “pitched as a sort of emergency measure” to bail the state out of fiscal embarrassment. Continuing that level of taxation would enable state agencies “to keep on doing what they have been doing — throwing money at problems.” Fundamental reform is needed in governance and in schools, she argued, rather than simply raising more tax money.
It is “an Alice in Wonderland fantasy to say that a tax extension is a tax increase,” said Dave Low.
Ana Matosantos argued that voting up or down on Proposition 55 depends on “whether voters want to grant the wealthiest individuals a tax break.” Without it, she said, there would be a $4 billion state deficit and K-12 education would suffer a $4 billion loss. The money that flowed to schools from Proposition 30 has enabled “huge changes,” Matosantos said. “The schools are cleaner, and programs that had been cut are being restored.”
She said “it is devoid of fact” to argue that needed changes are not being made.
But “What are we getting for the money?” David Wolfe asked. “Los Angeles Unified had a 50 percent dropout rate, and after a 50 percent increase in school funding, it still has a 50 percent dropout rate.”
Wolfe argued that not only would the rich be burdened by Proposition 55, its passage “would be devastating to small business.” If voters approve it, he said, it would amount to “punishing the most successful.”
Prop. 61 would prohibit California state agencies from paying more for prescription drugs than the federal Department of Veterans Affairs pays. The VA is allowed to bargain with drug companies to lower prices.
Pro: Rand Martin, MVM Strategy Group
Garry South, Garry South Group
Con: Kathy Fairbanks, Bicker Castillo Fairbanks Public Affairs
Fred Romero, American GI Forum
This was the liveliest exchange among panelists. Speaking against Prop. 61, Kathy Fairbanks argued that the writer and chief sponsor of the proposition, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation of Los Angeles, had exempted itself from some provisions of Prop. 61 in order to secure financial advantage. That was “suspicious,” she said.
“If you can’t defend your client, you throw bright, shiny objects into the air to deflect attention,” South charged. He read an excerpt from “Pharma Exec,” a drug industry publication, which described passage of Prop. 61 as “a pricing disaster” for drug companies because other states might follow California’s lead.
Fairbanks said 150 organizations, including the California Medical Association, are opposed to Prop. 61, and said that the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office had doubts about whether Prop. 61 would indeed lower drug prices.
South cited the sixfold price increase for the EpiPen, a lifesaving device for people with severe allergies, as an example of drug companies’ greed. He also charged that the companies went to great lengths to throw a cloak of secrecy over the prices they charge state agencies in order to cover up their greed.
By the time the hour-long session was ending, South and Fairbanks were talking over one another.
Propositions 62, 66
Props 62 and 66: Prop. 62 would repeal the death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole; Prop. 66 would limit death penalty appeals and length of time for death penalty review. If passed, it would invalidate Prop. 62.
Pro death penalty: Michele Hanisee, Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorneys Association.
Anne Marie Schubert, Sacramento County District Attorney.
Opposed to death penalty: Ron Briggs, former El Dorado County supervisor
Nancy Haydt, attorney with experience in death penalty issues.
Everyone agreed California’s death penalty law is broken. But the agreement ended there. The disagreement revolved around money and morality — whether the death penalty in California is so expensive and badly malfunctioning that the best thing to do is junk it, or whether it can be fixed under Proposition 66.
Michele Hanisee and Anne Marie Schubert cited horrific cases of “the worst of the worst” cases, some involving multiple killings, that deserve the death penalty. They argued that present law allows death penalty cases to drag on for years, at huge and unnecessary cost to taxpayers. San Quentin’s death row presently houses 743 inmates, some of them in their 80’s.
Ron Briggs argued that the death penalty is no deterrent. He cited mass killings in Texas and Louisiana, both states with the death penalty. In addition, it costs the state $141,000 a year for each condemned inmate, as opposed to approximately $51,000 for ordinary inmates.
“The death penalty doesn’t do what voters were promised it would do,” he argued.
What about a death row inmate serving a life term who, without a death penalty, thinks he has nothing to lose if he kills a guard? Schuburt and Hanisee asked.
Hanisee said Prop. 66 was a carefully-thought-out set of tweaks to make the system work better.
“The only way to fix the system is to get rid of it,” Haydt countered.
Proposition 64 would legalize marijuana and hemp, impose cultivation taxes and distribution standards.
In Favor: Jason Kinney, California Strategies
Richard Miadich, Olson Hagel and Fishburn
Opposed: Andrew Acosta, Acosta Associates
Lauren Michaels, California Police Chiefs Association
Jason Kinney argued that Proposition 64 would allow the state to control, regulate and tax what he called “a billion-dollar commercial operation now in the shadows.” It would also, he argued, send a message to the federal government that it needed to fix its out-of-date view of marijuana.
Andrew Acosta said Proposition 64 would set off a “Gold Rush” for marijuana purveyors. He said some individuals had ambitions to become the “Phillip Morris” of a legal recreational marijuana industry.
Acosta also worried about the effect legalized recreational marijuana would have on children — for instance, children might someday be munching marijuana candies bought at their corner grocery store. Richard Miadich said the proposition was drawn up with extensive provisions to safeguard minors from marijuana use; no edibles allowed that would appeal to children; no billboards within 1,000 yards of schools and no advertising specifically targeting children.
But Acosta argued that the measure was ill-drawn and flawed, using the word “commercialization” 30 times. “It started out as a horse and ended up as a camel,” he said.
Miadich said Prop. 64 was needed to correct the current situation of a huge underground industry, run by cartels and with a black market.
The fundamental questions underlying much of the day’s back-and-forth was this: How much regulation is needed? Can we trust the government to be competent and use our taxpayer dollars prudently?
Regardless of which side gained the upper hand in each of the five sessions, those questions will likely be argued over for decades to come.
Ed’s Note: Corrects attribution for quote from Prop. 53 opponent to Brandon Castillo, 6th graf.