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California initiatives do battle on ballot

Redistricting, taxes at issue

- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 23, 2010

The 2010 California ballot isn't just a list of traditional ballot initiatives and propositions - at times it's a toe-to-toe slugfest between the state Legislature and anyone standing in its way.

Most of the national attention has gone to Proposition 19, which would make California the first state to legalize marijuana for adults 21 and over. But look further down the ballot, and the recurring theme is of the Democrat-controlled Legislature fighting to expand its authority, while outsiders seek to curtail it.

The clashing resolutions have even spawned activist groups with names such as "Yes on 20/No on 27" to let Golden State voters know how to deal with clashing measures on the ballot.

Exhibit A: the budget. The state's marathon budget battles are the stuff of lore - this year's budget stalemate has already set a state record of 85 days through Thursday, with no end in sight. Proposition 25 would change the requirement for passing the state budget from a two-thirds vote to a simple majority, thus allowing the Democrats to approve budgets without any Republican support.

But Propositions 22 and 26 would restrict the Legislature's ability to raise revenue by borrowing from the state's transportation fund or by increasing fees and levies. Meanwhile, Proposition 24 would suspend the state's much-vaunted climate-change restrictions until unemployment drops to 5.5 percent or lower for at least a year.

Then there's redistricting. Two years ago, voters passed Proposition 11, which removed the power to draw legislative districts from lawmakers in Sacramento and handed it to an independent commission - just in time for the 2012 redistricting battles.

Proposition 27, backed by state legislators, would eliminate the commission and return the power to the Legislature. But another measure, Proposition 20, would expand the redistricting commission's authority to include congressional districts.

What happens if voters decide to expand the commission's authority and to abolish it at the same time? According to the California Secretary of State's Office, the proposition that receives more votes in November will prevail.

"There's a lot at stake here on both sides," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

California boasts some of the safest congressional and legislative seats in the nation, thanks to decades of gerrymandering designed to protect both Democratic and Republican incumbents. Only one congressional district in the past 10 years has changed parties, said Susan Shafer, spokeswoman for the "Yes on 20/No on 27" campaign.

Critics say the result has been legislative gridlock, given that neither party has any incentive to compromise on divisive issues like the budget. Even good-government groups such as Common Cause and longtime Democratic Party allies such as the NAACP California State Conference have come out in favor of redistricting by commission.

Still, lawmakers aren't giving up without a fight. Proposition 27 backers have raised nearly $5 million, most from Democratic state legislators and members of Congress. Rep. Judy Chu has contributed a whopping $600,000, while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has donated $10,000 and Rep. Linda T. Sanchez has given $25,000, according to reports.

Their argument is based on power: Proposition 20 would cost California its clout in Congress. "Ultimately, it's the fact that our delegation has been fairly influential in Washington, D.C., and anything that would change and lessen that would be detrimental to California," said Victoria Hoang, spokeswoman for the "No on 20" campaign.

Republican political analyst Allan Hoffenblum predicts the lawmakers won't find a receptive audience. "They're swimming against the tide," he said. "Most people do not expect this [proposition] to be successful. I don't even know how you campaign on that."

State legislators are finding more support for Proposition 25 on passing a budget, their other top election priority. The bill's proponents, chiefly Democrats and labor unions, argue that reducing the votes needed would break the perennial budget gridlock and spare the state time and money - not to mention its national reputation - by streamlining the process. California is one of only three states that requires a two-thirds majority vote for the budget.

But a speedier budget isn't necessarily a better budget.

The measure's foes contend that the main reason for the lengthy budget standoffs is that Republican legislators, a conservative, tight-fisted lot, regularly balk at spending increases and funding gimmicks. If their votes are no longer needed for passage, say opponents, the state's already disastrous financial picture would only get worse.

"The Democratic majority firmly believes that without the two-thirds requirement, they would be able to govern more effectively," said Mr. Hoffenblum. "They want absolute one-party rule."

Critics also fear that Proposition 25 will ultimately be interpreted to apply to tax increases, although proponents insist that the current two-thirds voting requirement will remain unchanged.

The San Francisco Chronicle endorsed Proposition 25 in an editorial this month, saying the two-thirds threshold "is not the only source of dysfunction in Sacramento, but it has been a significant hurdle to allowing the California Legislature to perform its most basic duty."

Critics of Proposition 25 have countered with Proposition 26, which would raise the vote requirement for fees, levies and other charges from a simple majority to a two-thirds supermajority. Under California law, any legislative state tax increases must win a two-thirds majority for passage.

The result is that the legislature disguises its revenue-raising efforts as fees, which only require a majority, instead of taxes, according to backers of Proposition 26.

"Proposition 26 defines what is a tax and what is a fee," said "Yes on 25/No on 26" spokeswoman Beth Miller. "We want fees to actually do what they say they're doing. Anything outside of that is a tax."

She cited the example of a state-enacted marriage-license fee that funded domestic-violence programs. "If domestic violence is a legitimate issue, government needs to address, fine; then make it a spending priority. Right now, it's a tax," said Ms. Miller.

Opponents of Proposition 26 argue that the measure would hurt environmental programs by making it more difficult to levy fees on polluters. They note that among the measure's supporters are oil, gas, liquor and tobacco companies, which are often the target of "fees" aimed at mitigating the societal impact of their products.

"Big Alcohol wants California taxpayers to foot the bill for the harm it causes," said the Marin Institute, an alcohol-industry watchdog, in a statement. "Proposition 26 ... would essentially absolve companies that pollute, or otherwise cause harm to the public, from paying for that harm by subjecting fees to the same impossible two-thirds vote that taxes must garner to be enacted."

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