SACRAMENTO — An internal rebellion spearheaded by emergency room physicians has prompted the California Medical Assn. to overrule its leadership and take a neutral stand on an initiative that would increase taxes on beer, wine and liquor to pay for an array of alcohol and drug treatment programs.
The governing council of the powerful physician organization took the position after hours of debate Friday pitting emergency room physicians, who are staunch supporters of Proposition 134, against the group's leadership, which had wanted the CMA to use its political muscle to oppose the proposal.
The issue had been building toward a climax ever since the CMA's seven officers recommended that the organization join the alcoholic beverage industry in fighting Proposition 134. In a letter to county medical societies, CMA President Charles W. Plows argued that if voters approve Proposition 134 now, a CMA plan to push for an alcohol tax increase next year could be killed.
He said the CMA will propose a program that would require all employers with five or more workers to offer medical insurance. It would provide, however, for a system of state subsidies that would be paid for in part by increases in the alcohol tax.
"It (the letter) appeared to be self-serving. It was terrible," said Susan Reynolds, a physician who owns and operates the Malibu Emergency Room. "I think the No. 1 health issue in this country is drugs and alcohol, and we should be out front in organized medicine doing something about that and Proposition 134 does."
Emergency room physicians have been financial contributors and major backers of Proposition 134, which also earmarks funds for emergency medical and trauma care treatment. Echoing Reynolds' arguments, they were successful in urging the 40-member council to ignore the recommendations of its leadership and at the least take a neutral position.
Afterward, Plows, an Anaheim gynecologist, said the leadership had not disputed that some of the programs funded by Proposition 134 were "worthy and needed" nor that alcohol taxes should be increased.
"We were concerned about Proposition 134, however, because it would preempt the use of $700 million in revenue each year," he said. "The (leadership) believes those funds would be better used to provide health insurance coverage for all working Californians and their dependents."
Although leaders of Taxpayers for Common Sense, an organization formed by the alcohol beverage industry to oppose the initiative, interpreted the CMA action as a victory, others saw it as a blow to their campaign strategy. They said the campaign had wanted to be able to capitalize on CMA support as it has on support by the California Teachers Assn. and other education organizations.
Besides the liquor industry, the education groups have been the main opponents of the measure. The groups contend that it could undermine a school initiative passed in 1988 which requires that roughly 40% of the state's general fund budget go to education. Because the revenue from the alcoholic beverage taxes proposed by Proposition 134 would go to specific programs, it would bypass the general fund.
"The driving issue that led our policy makers to take the position they did is the fact that it (Proposition 134) would hurt schools and ultimately hurt the children we teach," said a CTA spokesman. "We're pretty consistent in battling any attempts that would take money away from schools."
Robert Reynolds, campaign director for Californians for Nickel-a-Drink Yes on 134, accused the CTA and CMA of considering their self-interest first when determining what stand to take on the initiative.
"I'm deeply disappointed with the teacher leadership and the CMA," Reynolds said. "I'm convinced personally that classroom teachers want to support 134. I think their leadership wants to increase salaries."