The Enemy Of My Enemy...
June ballot propositions create some strange political bedfellows.
Thursday, May 21, 1998
The last few years have seen the people of California presiding over the state''s most controversial political decisions and this June 2 will be no different. Though there are fewer ballot measures on the primary ballot, these nine are showing a unique penchant to attract traditional political opponents into unlikely alliances.
Who would have thought just a few years ago, for example, that the political reformers at Common Cause would ever be on the same side as the neo-conservative Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association? Or that community activists and teachers from San Diego to Sacramento would be posing for photos ops with arch conservative Ron Unz? Or that the California Correctional Peace Officers Association would ever side with any other labor union--least of all, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU)? Well, call this the Summer of Love. Or at least know that when it comes to politics, the enemy of your enemy is always a friend. Here, in case you''ve missed it, is the skinny on the initiatives that will be on your ballot June 2.
Surely, California''s moderate Secretary of State Bill Jones and the reformers at Common Cause know each other fairly well by this point. But Prop. 219 is still probably the only force that would join this coalition with the arch-conservative Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association--the anti-tax mavericks that unleashed Prop. 13 on the Golden State. Prop. 219 is an experiment in referential referendum redundancy. For the record, Prop. 219 would ensure that statewide propositions apply statewide and not proportionally according to popular support. Sound confusing? Maybe an example will help. In 1993, California voters passed Prop. 173, a sales tax increase to pay for more police. A clause in the law said that any county that didn''t pass the proposition itself--even if it passed statewide--would not receive any of the new money. That''s unfair, say 219''s proponents. Basically 219, if passed, would prohibit a locality from being signaled out based on how it voted for a statewide measure. Supporters who signed the ballot arguments include state Sen. John Lewis, R-Orange.
While we are all pretty clear on what Prop. 184 did for criminals and jails--the "Three Strikes" law packed the former into the latter, making little differentiation between murderers and pizza thieves--what''s not so evident is what it''s done to the courts. Before "Three Strikes," county courts were divided into two levels, Superior and Municipal Courts. Municipal courts generally handled the little things--misdemeanors, infractions and civil suits for less than $250,000. Superior courts took everything else. But with "Three Strikes," all that changed. Because every criminal conviction is very serious now, the popularity of plea bargains has fallen dramatically. The Superior Courts are overloaded--trying many more cases that before were open and shut. To handle the increase, Municipal Courts began taking hundreds of Superior Court cases. Prop. 220, if passed on June 2, would erase the now blurred line between the two court systems and create one, unified county court. In the awkward bedfellows category, put state senator and attorney general candidate Bill Lockyer and, again, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, both of whom support this measure, along with the state Sheriff''s Association. Prop. 220''s opponents say the unified court system will take away the needed realm for smaller law cases and give municipal court judges an unneeded pay raise. Opponents include Mike Reynolds, author of the "The Three Strikes" law.
A sort of "Son of 220," Proposition 221 would establish a state board to oversee official court commissioners and referees. These commissioners and referees are like pseudo-judges who take smaller and less complicated lawsuits, such as small claims cases, that don''t need an official judge''s attention. Proponents of Prop. 220, who include the president of the California District Attorneys Association, say that these subordinate judicial officers, as they''re called, act like judges so they should be monitored and reprimanded the same way as judges. No arguments against this initiative were submitted for inclusion in the state primary ballot pamphlet.
Proposition 222 would change the rules for all murderers generally, and cop killers specifically. Right now there are two kinds of murder in California. There''s first degree, the kind that''s planned out or committed during the course of another crime, and second degree, which includes everything else. Prop. 222 would take away "conduct credits" for convicted second degree murders--no more time off for good behavior--and ensure they serve their full sentences. Additionally, Prop. 222 would end parole for anyone convicted of the second degree murder of a police officer. Supporters include the League of California Cities and Gov. Pete Wilson. No official arguments to the proposition were submitted for publication in the state ballot pamphlet.
Proposition 223 is an example of public policy by catch phrase. The proponents of this ballot measure--primarily the Los Angeles school district''s massive teachers'' union--call it the "95-5" initiative because it would cap all school administrative costs at 5 percent.
Those districts that failed to meet the goal would be heavily fined and the proceeds of the fines would go to those districts that were in compliance. Administrative spending in California schools is just above 7 percent overall with the LA district the only one coming in under 5 percent. The state''s overall percentage is higher than the national average, but smaller districts argue that because they don''t have many teachers, it''s harder for them to reduce that administrative percentage. Opponents--including the Association of California School Administrators, the League of California Cities, and the California PTA--also argue that the measure counts employees like bus mechanics as "administrative" when they''re just as necessary as teachers for running schools. All Prop. 223 will accomplish, they say, will be to load up administrative tasks on already-overworked teachers.
Prop. 223''s main proponents--the United Teachers of Los Angeles, Sen. Dianne Feinstein and LA Mayor Richard Riordan--say that money should be spent on books, computers and teachers, not school bureaucrats.
Here''s where the public employees strike back. Throughout the 1980s and continuing into the ''90s, "privatization" was the buzz word. Governments out-sourced everything from garbage collection to prison services. In California, governors George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson both tried to out-source freeway construction and maintenance, and both attempts failed in the courts. CalTrans workers and engineers don''t like this idea, and Prop. 224 is their counterattack. Sponsored and supported by many public employee unions, Prop. 224 would change the rules for bidding on state construction contracts. With it, state workers would be able to bid alongside private companies. Supporters include the California Organization of Police and Sheriffs (COPS). Prop. 224''s opponents--who include the California State Association of Counties, the California Taxpayers'' Association and the League of California Cities--argue, however, that the scales would be tipped in the public agencies'' favor because they only have to include additional state costs in their bids. They contend that since the state already employs the engineers and construction workers, payroll costs wouldn''t be figured into state bids. Private bidders, meanwhile, would still have to include them. Proponents say the proposition would protect state jobs and keep wages high.
Brought to you by US Term Limits, the national organization working to pass federal and state term limits nationwide, Proposition 225 is not a lawmaking proposition. It would simply "direct" state politicians to vote in favor of a federal Constitutional amendment for term limits. If later a politician doesn''t vote for term limits, the next ballot on which she or he appeared would state that fact: "Candidate voted against term limits," or something like that. The arguments for and against Prop. 225 go the same way as those for term limits. Advocates say term limits keep government fresh and empower the citizenry; opponents--which include the League of Women Voters, and the California State Association of Counties--argue that they destroy institutional memory and hand government over to armies of state bureaucrats and lobbyists. According to the Secretary of State''s office, the language included in this proposition has been ruled unconstitutional elsewhere. Proponents tried to have it removed from the ballot, but could not. If it passes, it will be challenged and ruled unconstitutional.
As labor unions have struggled over the last few years to reinsert themselves into the political process, they''ve done it by and large by supporting Democratic candidates and issues. Though an expensive union-led campaign to shift the balance of power in Congress failed in 1996, the impact of all that spending was felt here in California--the labor-backed Dems re-took the Assembly and increased their lead in the state Senate.
As you can guess, Republicans are not happy about labor''s new found clout and now the GOP is on the counter attack with Prop. 226. This measure would require all unions to obtain each member''s permission before using union dues for political purposes.
Unions, meanwhile, are throwing all their political weight into defeating this one. The California Teachers Association has already donated at least $3.4 million to the "No on 226" campaign and other big labor heavies have kicked in significant amounts as well: $50,000 from AFSCME, and $100,000 apiece from the Calif. Labor Federation, the United Food and Commercial Workers and the California Federation of Teachers. (In addition to labor groups, the measure is also opposed by the League of Women Voters and the League of California Cities. The California State Association of Counties is neutral on the measure.) While the conservative proponents of 226 call it "paycheck protection," labor defends its spending as a counter balance to the millions corporations and business leaders donate every year to political causes. The extra forms and signatures would make unions'' political involvement much more cumbersome, labor leaders say, thereby making it more difficult for unions to protect their constituents'' interests.
What''s surprising about Proposition 227--the ballot initiative that would more or less outlaw bilingual education--is its supporters, who include arch-conservative Ron Unz, Jamie Escalante (the Stand and Deliver teacher), progressive activists in Los Angeles and esteemed teachers in Sacramento. Ostensibly, Prop. 227 will "reform" California''s confusing and confused bilingual education programs--programs criticized by everyone, regardless of political persuasion. But 227, instead of modifying bilingual education, simply tosses it out. If Prop. 227 passes, students, whatever their inability to comprehend English, will be taught in this language only. Proponents of the measure, whose funding comes primarily from Unz, say English immersion has worked for most of this country''s immigrants in the past, so it should work now. They defend against accusations of racism--about 80 percent of bilingual students are Latino--by saying they want to give immigrants more of a chance. And English immersion will do just that. Opponents--who include the California Teachers Association, the California Federation of Teachers, the California School Boards Association and the League of Women Voters--say that, under Prop. 227, non-English speakers, about a quarter of California''s students, would fall quickly behind. Though Prop. 227 would funnel $50 million toward English tutors for these students, opponents say that would be far too little, far too late. Already, there are well-documented studies that show English immersion is an ineffective way to teach foreign-language students English.
With the popular support for the measure hovering at around 70 percent, any organized campaign is going to have a tough time turning it around in the few short weeks left. cw