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Elections 2012: A ballot stew starts to boil again

Doesn’t it seem like Californians just did this? Merely a year after voters passed judgment on taxes, budgeting, redistricting, environmental funding, local powers and other hot-button questions, some of the same issues are back – in spades. Different titles, different alignments, different political landscape, but somehow still the same.

And now more than ever, the courts are involved, which often means headaches for politicians and the public alike. Warning: You might want an aspirin.

Familiar issues are popping up: Drug use and distribution, the dismantling or overhaul of government agencies, statewide environmental analyses, individual medical disclosure rights, regulations governing organized labor and drastic changes to public pensions – all proposals pushed by their proponents toward the ballot.

“It all boils down to money,” says veteran political consultant Steve Maviglio. “There’s a $3 million gap, sometimes thankfully, between an idea for the ballot and the reality of getting before the voters. Unfortunately, filing a ballot initiative has become a publicity stunt.”

And what’s on the ballot is only the tip of the iceberg: During November alone, 26 proposed initiatives were filed with the state.

While a total of 30 different initiatives and referenda have been cleared for circulation, so far only two measures have been formally approved to move forward onto the primary ballot in June.

One, which qualified in July 2010, revises legislative term limits. Current law allows a total of 14 years – a maximum of six years in the Assembly and eight in the Senate. The new proposal, which in various forms has been rejected before, would cut the maximum to 12 years but allow the entire period to be served in one house.

The second initiative would impose new taxes on tobacco and tobacco products, including a $1-per-pack tax on cigarettes, to raise about $855 million annually for an array of health and cancer-research programs.

Numerous other initiatives are struggling to make the ballot deadline as well. For example, three separate proposals have been structured to tackle marijuana use, distribution and the legal ramifications upon arrest within the state.

“This also has become a business operation for many political consultants,” adds Maviglio. “Dream up an idea, file a measure, and then see if you can find a Sugar Daddy to fund it. Many of the measures will end up falling by the wayside if they can’t attract the millions required to be on the ballot and then approved by voters.”

For example, marijuana legalization has been a hot ballot topic in California for decades. The issue has captured increased visibility with the federal crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries in the state. The state’s strapped fiscal condition may also provide an incentive to approve measures to tax marijuana and provide revenue.

And 2012 is no different: Another proposal to legalize marijuana is being prepared for the ballot, supported by many of those who backed Proposition 19, a legalize-and-tax marijuana initiative which voters rejected handily last year.

Legal concerns over state-sanctioned drug use typically have focused on marijuana use and cultivation.

But another proposed drug-tax initiative targeting the manufacturing and importation of what are known as Schedule II, III and IV controlled substances – cocaine, morphine, opium and heroin, for example – has quietly been flying under the radar for some time.

Beginning in January 2013, a proposed quarter-cent tax per pill would provide revenue to fund the California Department of Justice’s program to monitor prescription and dispensation of controlled substances, as well as help cover administration costs, outreach, education, and investigation of abuses.

Increased state revenues are estimated at $7 million annually, which would be used to boost spending on a prescription drug database maintained by the DOJ.

Other proposals challenge California’s existing environmental regulations and seek to dismantle agencies and laws that govern environmental protections.

The latter include such landmark laws as the California Environmental Quality Act, the California Coastal Act, the California Endangered Species Act, California Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32) and the California Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act. All would face elimination.

Meanwhile, new measures also have been proposed to abolish the California Environmental Protection Agency and Air Resources Board, and instead “establish new inalienable rights to produce, distribute, use, and consume air, carbon dioxide, water, food, habitat for humanity, universal heal thyself care, and energy generating natural resources.”

This newfound choice for “heal thyself care” boasts of the “individual right to nullify all federal powers not specifically delegated to the United States by the federal constitution.”

Such attempts to abolish the state’s entire environmental protection machinery may have little chance of qualifying for the ballot, much less being approved by voters. But the fact that they exist at all inserts them, however marginally, into the ongoing political debate over environmental regulation.

A more serious measure also looms: A tax on California oil and natural gas has been introduced with the intention to distribute revenue from a 15 percent tax increase towards education. These numbers are intended to “supplement educational funding for purposes of reducing class size, reducing tuition, restoring classes cut, providing instructional materials and hiring teachers and professors.”

This measure allocates tax revenues towards higher education, including UC, CSU and statewide community college programs, as well as abundant funding for grades K-12, and prohibits the reduction of existing education-funding levels based on additional tax revenues.

Similar attempts to place an established oil severance tax in California and use the money for education and the environment have been defeated before, withering before the opposition of the petroleum industry.

A fiscal-impact estimate by the Legislative Analyst’s Office and the state Finance Department director estimates “increased state revenues from a new oil and gas severance tax of around $3 billion per year.” These revenues would likely result in increased state funding of various education programs.

Even the experts have a hard time keeping up with all of the new legislative proposals.  “It’s going to be a very crowded ballot with some serious proposals,” says political strategist Brian Brokaw. “And all it takes is an idea. Everybody has the right to participate in the political process. But many of these ideas are too extreme.”

Brokaw may be on to something.  Public health care issues, including abortion, remain some of the most controversial amendments facing the California constitution.

Walter B. Hoye II, president and founder of the California Civil Rights Foundation “Issues4life,” has proposed a stronger legal definition of a “person” to include “all living human beings from the beginning of their biological development as human organisms, for purposes of state constitutional protections of due process and equal protection.”

Although focused on curbing abortion, the dramatic language of the proposed initiative also would essentially eliminate state constitutional protections of due process and equal protection for non-biological entities, such as corporations.

Two other initiatives are reminiscent of previous motions determining a California woman’s right to seek an abo
rtion. Both move to repeal a 2008 legal decision to allow females under 18 to receive an abortion without parental consent or a waiting period. Changes to the existing law would provide exceptions for medical emergency, parental waiver, or parental abuse documented by notarized statements from law enforcement, protective services, or certain adult relatives.

The changes also would permit a judge to waive notice if the minor appears personally in court and proves maturity, or if the waiver is in her best interest and formally requires physicians to report specific abortion information to Department of Public Health. Violating physicians would be subject to suits for 12 years.

Other initiative proposals rocking California’s political boat include a repeal of the death penalty and a referendum to overturn state financial aid to undocumented students. Stricter limits on retirement benefits, personal liability, legislation exemptions and gift-giving for candidates for office, government officials, and government advisors have also been fighting for space on the 2012 ballot.

If critics of the state’s public pension system prevail, public employees could facing major changes as they approach their golden years.  Reductions in pension plans, a proposal to raise the retirement age and a possible 15 percent increase on pension income taxes for teachers, nurses, police officers and “other public employees” are all major changes that could affect California voters. Collective bargaining rights for those groups also are targeted.

Meanwhile, a major referendum drive has been launched to overturn the newly drawn districts in the state Senate.

Traditionally, legislative districts were drawn by the Democrat-controlled Legislature to conform with the latest census figures.

But voters, hoping to remove politics from the redistricting process, approved the creation of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, which redrew the boundaries of the 40 Senate districts, as well as the 80 Assembly Districts, the 53 congressional districts and four Board of Equalization seats.

But it is the Senate seats that have drawn GOP fire. A Republican-backed referendum would prevent the new state Senate boundaries from taking effect unless approved by voters in the next statewide election, which is in June. It would also require court-appointed officials to set interim boundaries.

However, the secretary of state’s website shows that the 504,760 signatures that are legally required to move forward on to the 2012 ballot have yet to be met.
Bell has also filed a referendum to overturn changes to ballot measure elections. To date, 13 measures have failed to qualify.


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