The Real Election in California this Year: The Battle Over Ballot Measures

by Tony Quinn
May 1, 2004
Well, here it is the warm days of summer and already millions of Americans are bored to tears by a presidential election that will not occur for months. But Californians need not be concerned; we are left out of the national picture because California is not a "Battleground State," thus no money will be spent here to win the hearts and minds of the Golden State. We will revert to our usual posture as political ATM for the nation. Candidates come to California to raise money that will be spent in other states.

This also applies to the major partisan races. Although Sen. Barbara Boxer remains an unpopular figure in this state (if you want something done, contact Sen. Feinstein), it is hard to find evidence of an adequately funded race for the Senate in 2004. The respected Rothenberg Political Report places Boxer in its "clear advantage to the incumbent party" ranking, and notes that "the cost of defeating Boxer, barring a groundswell, may well be prohibitive."

That's the problem with the Senate race; a statewide race is so expensive in California that the parties prefer to spend their money elsewhere. Rothenberg places ten Senate races in far less expensive states in the toss-up category. The problem facing GOP nominee Bill Jones is to get the attention, and the money, he needs to make this a credible race.

Forget the 53 House of Representatives districts in California. Every seat is safe for the incumbent party barring some unexpected event. Thanks to the 2001 gerrymandering of Congressional districts, there will be no Congressional races this fall. In the State Senate and Assembly, only a handful of districts are competitive, and the Democrats face no danger of losing control of either house.

So this will be a snoozer election? Well, not exactly. We still have direct democracy, and it is the initiatives and one referendum on the ballot this fall that will get our attention. In fact, we are facing one of the most important elections in California history, for this election may determine the direction of the state for years to come, not on partisan issues but on economic issues.

Here's the lay of the land:

" Voters will be asked to approve or reject Senate Bill 2, a measure passed in the waning days of the Davis Administration to impose a mandate on all firms with more than 20 employees to provide health care insurance for their workers. Business groups estimate this will impose $7 billion in additional costs on businesses in California, especially small and medium sized firms that cannot afford to provide their employees health care coverage. Businesses also point out that SB 2 does nothing to reduce health care costs; it merely transfers the cost of providing health care for the uninsured to California's business community.

" "Shakedown lawsuits" are the target of an initiative that does something truly radical: it requires that someone actually suffer a financial or property loss before a lawsuit can be filed under the state's unfair business practices laws. One would assume, of course, that you cannot file a lawsuit against a company unless somebody has suffered actual damage, but this is California, and our very liberal "unfair practices" statute allows you to file a lawsuit even where there is no harm to anyone. This initiative will stop shakedown suits against companies by requiring that a financial loss be shown.

" A group of activists has come up with an interesting way to provide more money for emergency services: tax your telephone calls. This measure imposes a telephone surcharge to pay for emergency and medical services. As is so often the case, the ballot measure is so poorly written that even many health care professionals, supposedly the beneficiaries of the telephone surcharge tax, are opposed to it. Proponents are having some trouble showing why telephones should be taxed to pay for emergency services. What did telephone users do to deserve this?

" There's a great "tax the rich" scheme on the ballot as well. This is a measure to impose a new tax on millionaires to pay for additional mental health services. Like the telephone tax, proponents again have the problem of showing why a millionaire surcharge is necessary to get adequate funding for mental health services. There is something called the legislature that is supposed to decide these things.

" What's an election without an Indian gaming measure? This year we have two, one advanced by an Indian tribe to, guess what, expand Indian gaming by removing limits on slot machines, facilities and types of games. The second measure is sponsored by card clubs and racetracks. It would, oddly enough, heavily tax Indian casinos and expand gaming to card clubs and tracks if the Indians refuse to pay the new taxes. Count on about $100 million in campaign spending to convince Californians one way or another on these measures.

But the most far-reaching measure on the November ballot is not even on the radar screen right now. It is an initiative innocuously titled "Elections, Primaries" that would reinstate the open primary that Californians had in 1998 and 2000 but which was struck down by the courts. However, the new version would not only open the primary election to all voters, but also create a "top two" runoff for partisan offices in California like we have now for local office.

This measure will fall on the legislature like a brick on a teacup, because instead of politicians limiting their concerns to the small number of partisan ideologues in their districts, they would have to be responsive to all the voters, both in the primary and in the general election. That could radically change what passes for democracy in California.

We might actually elect a legislature that represents the people of California, and that can actually get things done.

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