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Expensive Victory for Business : Propositions: About $57 million was spent by companies and agricultural interests on Tuesday's initiatives.

November 08, 1990|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

California's business community claimed a decisive victory Wednesday as almost every ballot proposition on its hit list was defeated and Republican Sen. Pete Wilson headed for the governor's mansion.

But there was anger--at the initiative process, over the estimated $57 million spent on it and the time devoted to it.

Despite business wins over the "Big Green" and "Forests Forever" environmental initiatives and a move to boost alcohol taxes, doubts remained about voters' views of industry.

Although business escaped this time--through luck, voter irritation with new taxes and fears about recession or businesses' skill in using the initiative process--many fear that the issues confronted Tuesday will return.

And although there was talk Wednesday of changing the initiative process, many businesses said they must focus on solving problems raised in Tuesday's elections or risk having solutions thrust upon them by others.

Any celebrating was tempered.

"I almost drank champagne for breakfast this morning--champagne without sulfites, by the way," said Jeffrey L. Hilgert, president of Chico-based Duckback Industries, which makes spas and redwood gazebos,

Kirk West, president of the California Chamber of Commerce, which was active in the fight to defeat Proposition 128, the "Big Green" initiative aimed at cleaning up the environment, said: "We're, of course, very pleased. This election was a difficult situation for the business community."

William Campbell, a former state senator who now heads the California Manufacturers Assn., observed: "From the business standpoint, I think the election turned out very well. There was a great fear in the business community that some of the movement toward massive environmental invasion into the private sector would somehow put us into the position of moving business out of California."

Although California Farm Bureau President Bob Vice declared on election night that he was jubilant about the defeat of Proposition 128, there was little celebrating Wednesday in Fresno, the nation's richest farm county.

Because the Big Green initiative, and Proposition 135, its agriculture-sponsored counterpart, failed, the election had no immediate economic impact on the state's $17.5-billion farm industry.

But the agriculture industry spent more than $5 million in its abortive effort to pass Proposition 135, which many farmers consider a steep price for a partial victory. The Proposition 128 opposition raised an estimated $10 million, largely from chemical companies, in a sister effort.

Thomas L. Thomsen, a cotton, tomato and wheat grower from western Fresno County, saw no reason to gloat the day after Big Green died on the vine: "I don't say it was a win really (for agriculture). I think people were just scared of Big Green. . . . There are no signs of agriculture being safe by any means."

Gill-net fishermen were glum Wednesday in the wake of passage of Proposition 132, which bans use of monofilament gill nets, starting in 1994, within three miles of the Southern California coast.

"Fishermen are kind of despondent now," said Joe Cracchiolo, president of the Los Angeles Commercial Fishermens Assn. He estimated that as many as half of the 100 boats affected could be put out of business.

Rob Ross, director of the California Fisheries & Seafood Institute, said the trade group will try to challenge Proposition 132 in court.

Some political observers warned the business community not to be too quick to pat itself on the back for its victories.

Business, historically, has done well in the political arena when the economy is slipping, as it is now, said David Vogel, a UC Berkeley business professor who is an expert on business and politics.

"My general sense," he said, "is that the public's enthusiasm for placing restrictions on business . . . was limited by their lack of confidence in the economy."

The message sent to business Tuesday was "get your act together," said Larry L. Berg, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.

"My biggest concern," he said, "is that the business community not misread" Tuesday's vote, wrongly assuming that the public is unconcerned about improving the environment or controlling pesticides. "They shouldn't take any comfort from this. It's a warning shot across the bow."

Some business people and industry groups already talked of preemptive strikes to protect themselves by reforming the initiative process or dealing with the issues raised by the ballot propositions.

"I think there's a growing feeling that the initiatives have gotten out of control," said Ray Remy, president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. The business community would be interested in supporting a plan to "make initiatives more responsive and accountable," he said.

"Businesses and politicians don't have the backbone to deal with the initiative process, and voters have already told them how they're going to deal with it" by rejecting most of the 29 propositions Tuesday, political analyst Berg said.

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