Proposition 87, the Clean Energy Initiative, lacks assurances, details

Proposition 87, the California Clean Energy Initiative, is shaping up as the most contentious item on the November ballot. To judge whether this measure would be good public policy, voters will need detailed information. Proposition 87, however, offers “solutions” too vague for anyone to evaluate what its $4 billion will buy.

Proposition 87 intends “to reduce petroleum consumption by 25 percent” through incentives for alternative energy and energy efficiency. But it provides no details about what form the incentives will take and how large they would be, or about how responsive the subsidized behavior is assumed to be.

As the legislative analyst wrote, “The actual reduction would depend on the extent to which the measure was successful.” In other words, it is impossible to tell whether the proposition offers the promised panacea or an expensive pipedream.

All Proposition 87 tells us about implementation is that it will create a board to develop strategic plans and procedures toward its goals. No voter can accurately predict its effects. Achieving its goals requires blind faith that future bureaucrats will somehow discover precisely what to do and will perform it well, despite all the common bureaucratic disincentives. That prospect inspires few beyond the backers who will benefit from the subsidies.

With campaign rhetoric unaccompanied by specifics, neither logic nor the history of vague political “solutions” supports faith in Proposition 87. Its goals, while laudable, do not justify support, since there is no assurance they will even be approached, much less met.

When a proposition omits virtually all the information necessary for evaluation, voters should rightly be suspicious. Why should that make its case appear stronger?

Backers might know the details of what they intend (for example, getting control of the board), but fail to reveal them. But if it is necessary to hide these details in order to put the best public face on a proposal, those details must be adverse. If these details made a more persuasive case, they would be trumpeted at every opportunity, not withheld. Concealment pays politically only when more information would lead voters to reject a proposal.

Alternatively, backers might know too little of their supposed solutions to provide the specifics of a workable plan. If this is the case, they know too little to deliver on their campaign promises. One would never invest money based on such vague promises of an unseen product. It would be foolish to act any differently with Proposition 87.

Big-ticket spending proposals are also often vague on who will be forced to pay, to forestall opposition until it is too late. Proposition 87 escapes that criticism. It says it will make oil companies pay, manipulating resentment about gas prices and oil-company profits–even as gas prices recede. This way, it can overcome any guilt over the political robbery of forcing oil companies to pay for what some want to gain, only without paying for it.

The pro-87 campaign pounds the point that voters won’t pay, highlighting a provision punishing oil companies by making it illegal for them to pass on any of the $4 billion to customers. Of course, assuming there will be no negative consequences for California jobs and income from a tax of that magnitude is beyond belief. Further, the complexity of determining what the price “should” be to enforce that provision will be impossible to administer fairly.

But who will care how weak the case for Proposition 87 is when it will be on someone else’s dime? And how effective will public oversight be by those with nothing at stake?

Since good public policy must be built on a foundation of solid information, the absence of nuts-and-bolts details in Proposition 87 is revealing. So is its reliance on manipulating resentment rather than providing facts. In this light, the message being sent to voters is clear. Even the promoters of Proposition 87 believe the measure cannot withstand scrutiny on its own merits.

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