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Rob Reiner's Most Heartfelt Role to Date

The director has been pushing hard for the cigarette tax hike that would fund child development programs. But his political naivete has even some backers concerned.


SACRAMENTO — Movie director Rob Reiner is in his element even though he's out of his element, sitting front and center at a state hearing, preaching in a booming voice about nurturing children from conception to kindergarten.

Such stimulation "is vitamins, it is food, it is nutrition for the brain," bellows the man best known for his role as Archie Bunker's "Meathead" son-in-law.

His vehicle--and reason for testifying this autumn morning--is Proposition 10, the initiative on November's ballot that would add a 50-cent tax on a pack of cigarettes, generating $700 million for counties to spend on child development programs of their choice, ranging from child care to parent education.

Millions of dollars will be spent promoting and fighting the initiative.

Reiner has turned to his entertainment buddies for backing, persuading, among others, Steven Spielberg, Robin Williams, and his own father, Carl Reiner, to join his cause. He spent $2 million getting nearly 1.2 million signatures to qualify the initiative for the Nov. 3 ballot and hopes to raise an additional $6 million, mostly for television ads.

The formal opposition, which calls itself the Committee Against Unfair Taxes, is financed by the tobacco industry, which sees the proposed tax as an unfair threat to cigarette sales.

Reiner contends that his foes plan up to $20 million in TV air time in October, though the opponents say their intended buy is closer to $2 million. The first No on Proposition 10 ads--attacking the bureaucracy that opponents say the initiative would create--were being test-marketed in Fresno last week.

At the recent state hearing, a member of the governor's Child Development Policy Advisory Committee asked Reiner whether noncitizen children would be eligible for care under his plan.

Of course, he assured her, but he looked puzzled.

"The state regulations do not allow noncitizens to have access to these kinds of services?" he asked, unaware of the battles waged on this front in California and across the nation.

Reiner has name recognition, a persuasive delivery and deep conviction about his Children and Families Initiative. But his savoir-faire only partly obscures a narrow knowledge of existing children's policy and programs.

His interest in early childhood development dates back more than 20 years, to when he was in therapy after a painful breakup with his ex-wife, director Penny Marshall. Locating the early roots of his problems led him to think about how children are raised and the effect that has on society.

After remarrying and starting his own family, Reiner's concern was reignited. A few years ago, he invited experts to his home to educate him and he was appalled to find out that only 10% of all children's funding is spent on them before they start school.

Rapid fire, he produced a prime time television special titled, "I Am Your Child," started a private foundation with the same name and dived into the initiative process.

He's impatient. When people remark at how quickly Reiner has moved, he responds, "Jesus, this is a snail's pace!"

How his rush and relative naivete have helped shape the initiative is a concern even to those who would benefit the most from Proposition 10, though they are careful to say they support it. At the state hearing, Pamm Shaw rose to voice their worry.

"There are state bodies that exist to do what you're talking about doing," said Shaw, who has worked with children's agencies for more than two decades. "I fear you're going to create a secondary system that will have more funding than the [main] one."

How the System Would Work

For the 50-cent-a-pack boost--making California the third-most-expensive state for smokers--the Reiner initiative would create an umbrella state commission, with appointees named by the governor and the Legislature.

The state commission would take 20% of the revenues to pay for statewide programs, including a tobacco education program, and a professional staff.

The remaining 80% would be given to counties based on their proportion of births in the previous year. A network of volunteer commissions would be set up in each county to distribute the wealth to new and existing programs of their choice. Options under the initiative vary from prenatal nutrition and day-care programs to filling gaps in child health care and domestic violence prevention systems.

Los Angeles County, for example, would receive about $176 million in the first year, Orange County would get about $50 million and Ventura County $12 million. In many cases, federal matching funds also would be available.

Reiner knows that fear of a bloated bureaucracy is the initiative's greatest vulnerability. So does Ron Gray, whose Sacramento public relations firm, Stoorza, Ziegaus, Metzger & Hunt, is among those coordinating the opposition.

The firm's $25,000-a-month fee is being paid out of a campaign kitty provided by four tobacco companies and their research wing, the Tobacco Institute.

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