The November 2012 elections represent an historic turning point for California progressives. After years of declining state revenue and out of control prison spending, progressives are finally seizing the initiative and using state ballot measures to move the state forward. Prop 30, Governor Brown’s tax measure, is the best-known initiative, and will raise $6 billion annually. Prop 34, which ends the costly death penalty, and Prop 36, which modifies the unaffordable “Three Strikes” law, also address California's longstanding revenue shortfall by redirecting hundreds of millions of dollars each year from prisons to education, health care, urban police staffing and other critical needs. Prop 39 has gotten less attention, but it helps build the state's future by eliminating $1 billion in corporate loopholes and redirecting the money to green energy programs and green jobs. And Prop 37, which requires the labeling of genetically modified foods, is already being viewed as a national model. It's long overdue, but California progressives are finally using state initiatives to achieve progressive change.
California politics are a paradox: despite no Republicans holding statewide office and Democrats controlling the legislative for years, a combination of voter-approved ballot measures and a 2/3 requirement for legislative tax hikes have prevented the state from moving forward. I argued in June 2009 that “Progressives Bear Blame for California’s Woes
,” because they knew that they had to win state ballot measures to achieve their goals yet failed to even put progressive initiatives on the ballot.
Many progressives openly doubted their ability to win state initiatives, convinced that big money opposition would prevail. In contrast, conservatives have used ballot measures to control state tax and spending policies, reducing the power of Democratic-controlled state legislative bodies.
All that has now changed in 2012. While progressives will be forced to invest major resources in defeating Prop 32, the other major ballot initiatives all put conservatives on the defensive and would further progressive change. Most importantly, we have measures that shift resources from prisons to more people serving needs, reversing California’s misguided and costly criminal justice strategy.
Fiscal Healing: Props 34 and 36
California Democrats have been on the defensive on crime issues since at least the 1982 Governor’s election, in which Republican George Deukmejian focused on crime to win an upset victory. Gray Davis made sure in 1998 that he would be immune from “soft on crime” charges, backing a multi-billion dollar build up of the state’s prison industrial complex.
California voters backed “three strikes” and other costly criminal justice “reforms,” and current Governor Jerry Brown joined with then Governor Schwarzenegger in narrowly defeating a three strikes reform initiative in 2004. But in typical California progressive fashion, this narrow defeat did not prompt progressives to return to the ballot---until Prop 36 this November.
By limiting the life sentence requirement for a “third strike” to serious or violent felonies, the non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office projects that Prop 36 will save the state between $70-100 million annually. That’s nearly one billion dollars over the next decade that would shift from imprisoning for life those stealing a loaf of bread to addressing vital state needs.
There’s obviously a moral and policy rationale for revising three strikes----nobody should get life imprisonment for a nonviolent property crime---but in this climate it seems that the money savings is Prop 36’s strongest selling point. Fortunately, the Yes on 36 effort is headed by Ace Smith, California’s best campaign manager, which means the measure is quite likely to prevail (a recent poll found 73% of respondents supporting changes to three strikes).
Prop 34’s effort to repeal the state’s death penalty would have been deemed a sure loser only a decade ago, but times have changed. California has executed 13 people since voters reinstated the death penalty in 1978, and it takes 25 years of massive financial costs for a death sentence to lead to execution.
California has spent $4 billion on death penalty cases, or $300 million per execution. This same period has seen draconian cuts to public education and massive tuition hikes for students attending state colleges and universities.
According to the Legislative Analyst, Proposition 34 will save California voters $130 million a year. Add these savings to those from Prop 36 and the $6 billion annually that Prop 30 will generate and we are talking about finally moving the state in a progressive fiscal direction.
Prop 37: Truth in Labeling
What starts in California often goes national, which is why Monsanto and other large corporations profiting from genetically engineered foods are spending record sums to defeat Prop 37. Prominent food writer Mark Bittman has already highlighted how Prop 37’s passage could impact national practices
, describing Prop 37 as “unquestionably among the most important non-national votes this year.”
After environmentalists and health activists had to devote considerable resources to defeating the Chevron-backed Prop 23 in 2010, it’s great to see progressives putting corporate giants like Monsanto, Dupont, Nestle, Pepsico and Coca Cola on the defensive. And considering that Prop 37 does not bar any practices but simply requires disclosure, it puts the chemical industry and corporate food producers in the position of arguing that people do not have the right to know about what they are eating.
Prop 37 is not the type of complex, no chance to win measure that progressives have too often put on the ballot despite knowing that it has no chance to overcome big-money opposition. In fact, the reason these corporations are pouring tens of millions of dollars into defeating Prop 37 is that 91% of voters who hear about it
favor such disclosure.
In addition to the benefits of truth in labeling, Prop 37 also diverts millions these corporations would be spending on the wrong side of other progressive campaigns.
Prop 39: Closing Corporate Loopholes
Voters will also get the chance to pass Prop 39, which ends a tax loophole enjoyed by out of state corporations like Chrysler, General Motors, International Paper and Kimberly-Clark and shift the savings to green energy projects and creating green jobs.
This brilliant idea comes from a Tom Steyer, a billionaire hedge fund manager based in San Francisco. Steyer has donated $21.9 million toward the initiative, and it sure is nice to see a hedge fund manager doing something positive with their money.
What’s strategically impressive about Prop 39 is that it was essentially a placeholder in case the Legislature did not pass AB 1500. That bill would have used the tax loophole savings to reduce tuition for working and middle class college students.
Because Steyer and his crowd were thinking proactively, AB 1500’s failure to get 2/3 approval in the legislature (Republicans preferring to keep a “no tax” pledge over helping college students) did not let the corporate loophole escape. By passing Prop 39, voters can create green jobs rather than help out of state corporations who will be spending millions to save their billion- dollar loophole.
Thanks to progressives’ new pro-active approach, the long Republican stranglehold on California’s future may soon end.
Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He is the author of The Activist’s Handbook
and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century