In one day last week, 15 earthquakes occurred worldwide. Of course, one of them was in California, a small 1.7 magnitude temblor on the Mexican border. Earthquakes are a daily occurrence in the Golden State, and this year’s Proposition 13 is aimed at making homeowners at least a little bit safer when the next big one hits.
Like its circa-’78 namesake, this proposition deals with property taxes. But unlike the other, still-controversial one, this Prop. 13 is virtually unopposed.
Currently, homeowners who perform seismic retrofits on their homes, particularly those built of nonreinforced masonry (known to most of us as “bricks”), may find their home values reassessed after they’ve made improvements.
Under the new Prop. 13, seismic retrofitting would not result in higher property taxes until the building is sold, giving homeowners a chance to act before it’s all a rubble.
Estimations are that there may be a small drop in local property tax revenues resulting from the passage of Prop. 13, but no other unwarranted effects are forecast.
The bipartisan group California Forward announced last year that it was working on a package of constitutional amendments designed to shatter the gridlock that has paralyzed Sacramento and made California essentially ungovernable. A few months later, inertia forced the group to back down from the challenge.
The substance of Prop. 14 comes from that reform effort. Without the accompanying measures, however, it could very well replace one political problem with another potentially bigger problem.
Prop. 14 would do away with party primaries and replace them with an “open primary,” in which Democrats, Republicans, Greens, Libertarians and Peace & Freedom candidates would battle it out. The top two vote-getters would win the opportunity to face off in a general election.
Supporters claim the amendment would diminish the power of the two main parties, and more importantly, the special interests—unions and big business—who wield such power over the parties.
But there’s no guarantee that simply doing away with the primaries will have any such effect. In fact, the opposite could happen.
The proposition states: “Political parties may establish such procedures as they see fit to endorse or support candidates or otherwise participate in all elections, and they may informally ‘nominate’ candidates for election to voter-nominated offices at a party convention or by whatever lawful mechanism they so choose, other than at state-conducted primary elections.”
What’s to keep lobbyists and party insiders from holding backroom meetings with their moneyed sponsors, and then funneling gobs of cash to their chosen candidates? Nothing. The only thing Prop. 14 does is take the voters out of the picture.
California needs comprehensive political reform, along the lines of what California Forward recommended. Prop. 14 isn’t it.
The California Fair Elections Act would take a small step toward getting special interests out of campaigns by creating a pilot program for publicly funded elections. It would focus, for symbolic reasons, on the very state office that oversees balloting.
Candidates for secretary of state would have the option of tapping into a pool of money collected from registered lobbyists (in the form of a $700 fee every two years) and using it to fund their campaigns, ostensibly freeing them from obligations to big donors. The initiative would also lift California’s 20-year ban on public financing of campaigns, paving the way for future publicly funded races.
The most common criticism of this initiative—that it would waste taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars—utterly overlooks the fact that funding would come from lobbyists, not taxpayers. Another criticism—that taxing lobbyists to fund elections has been proven unconstitutional—doesn’t take into account the fact that this is a fee, not a tax, and a modest one at that (the failed tax, levied in Vermont, was a hefty 5 percent of gross income).
Others fret that it’s a gateway to a gold rush by fat-cat politicians eager to stick taxpayers with their campaign bills. That’s pure Tea Party rhetoric and should be ignored.
We say one step at a time. Supporters point to successful “fair elections” frameworks in five states and relate intriguing anecdotes about what elected officials can accomplish when they’re beholden to no one (one such story involves an insurance commissioner actually ordering insurance companies to roll back rates and issue rebates to overcharged patients). There’s very little to lose here and an awful lot to gain.
The “Taxpayers Right to Vote Act,” as it’s been dubbed by its corporate sponsor, has a patriotic ring to it. But this initiative has nothing to do with any existing right to vote. When local politicians point out that Prop. 16’s sole purpose is to eliminate consumer choice, and could cripple local governments seeking alternative energy sources, they are correct.
Prop. 16 is really about the Right to Sell—and who owns the right to provide energy to the public. If it passes, Californians would be tied to just a handful of energy companies, and their dominance in existing and new markets would essentially be written into the state constitution.
Though three investor-owned utility companies would benefit from this arrangement, just one has financed the Yes on 16 campaign. Since the beginning of this year, PG&E has spent more than $35 million on the cause.
If Prop. 16 passes, it would amend the state constitution to require a two-thirds approval (rather than a simple majority) by local voters before a Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) could provide electricity to any new customers if there was any public money or debt involved. It would require the same two-thirds approval by any community that a CCA wanted to expand into, whether or not public money or bonds were involved. In its assessment of the initiative, the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office said the voter-approval requirements could deter communities from pursuing CCA at all. District 3 Sen. Mark Leno has called it “a stake in the heart of CCA.”
Proponents of the measure say the electricity business is risky, and voters should be able to vote when public money is being leveraged. Opponents say Prop. 16 is just a thinly veiled manipulation of the initiative process, and that it would constitutionally guarantee a monopoly for companies like PG&E.
If the Continuous Coverage Auto Insurance Discount Act sounds too good to be true, it’s because it is. This act allows consumers to qualify for a continuous coverage discount while still shopping around for the lowest rate, promoting competition in the free market. But it would also have a pernicious effect that could cost the most needy Californians some serious money.
If passed, insurance companies would be permitted to ask a consumer for proof of auto insurance for the last five years without any lapse over 90 days, even if he or she hadn’t been driving during that time. If the consumer can’t prove coverage, an automatic penalty of up to $1,000 could be added to the premium.
Like Prop. 16, it’s entirely backed by one company, in this case, Mercury Insurance.
The allure of Prop. 17 is that consumers who choose to switch insurers can keep their continuous coverage discount and take it with them, saving up to $250 a year. Prop. 17 promises a 90-day grace period if drivers lapse on their car insurance payments. Under current law, if drivers qualify for the continuous coverage discount and then switch insurers, they cannot take that discount with them to a new company.
Penalties based on coverage history were made illegal in 1988 by voters as a discriminatory practice. Prop. 17 could easily make insurance companies less accountable while giving them the ability to raise premiums and add penalties.