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Legislators Criticize Proposition 51

Politics: Lawmakers decry the proposal's inclusion of transit projects that would benefit large donors to initiative campaign.


SACRAMENTO — Saying they'd be in jail if they tried to do what the drafters of Proposition 51 have done, lawmakers Wednesday lashed out at the nonprofit Planning and Conservation League as "initiative pimps" who loaded a traffic congestion relief and safe school bus ballot measure with special projects for large donors.

"I'm frankly at the point where I'm just kind of disgusted," said Sen. Kevin Murray (D-Culver City) at the end of a three-hour legislative hearing about the ballot measure. "I hope the people of the state of California find it disgusting also."

Planning and Conservation League Executive Director Jerry Meral, the target of lawmakers, did not appear at the hearing. But he said afterward that there is nothing illegal about Proposition 51, which is on the November ballot.

"If those guys were not acting in the role of legislators today, they would be subject to slander suits," Meral said. "They are objecting to the fact that we are allowing citizens to decide budget priorities, and they find that outrageous."

Proposition 51 would not raise additional money for transportation projects, but instead transfer 30% of the state's sales tax receipts on used and new vehicles into a new fund loosely aimed at easing traffic congestion, building bike paths and replacing old school buses. Experts testified that the measure could shift nearly $1 billion from the general fund next year, forcing lawmakers to cut spending on public safety, health care and other services.

Written largely by Meral and others at the Sacramento-based environmental group, Proposition 51 would dedicate money to many narrowly tailored projects that benefit some financial backers of the initiative. For example, it includes a $120-million rail line near a casino in Palm Springs. The casino owners, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, donated $125,000 to the Yes on 51 campaign.

In another example of what lawmakers called possibly criminal quid pro quo in the crafting of Proposition 51, Hillwood Development LLC, a Texas company trying to develop an industrial site in San Bernardino, donated $120,000 to the initiative. Proposition 51 earmarks $30 million over four years to separate railways and roads leading to the company's property.

Such a project doesn't even rank as a priority with San Bernardino traffic planners, said Norm King, executive director of San Bernardino Associated Governments. He called Proposition 51 "a sweet little treat for a handful of PCL favorites."

Meral acknowledged that there is now little congestion along the route near the former Norton Air Force Base. But preparing the area for heavier truck and train traffic from Hillwood's proposed distribution center could help revive San Bernardino economically, he said.

"Hillwood is a supporter [of Proposition 51]; that project is in there; we're happy with both of those situations," Meral said. "We don't agree with [King's] priorities, sorry. He can make his case, we'll make our case."

In pointed questioning of the league's transportation director, Eddy Moore, lawmakers implied that the environmental group did something forbidden in the Legislature--drafting law in order to win campaign contributions.

"You find the people you think will benefit, and you seek to raise money from them?" Assemblyman Rod Pacheco (R-Riverside) said in an incredulous tone as he repeated one of Moore's answers.

Moore argued that each project listed in Proposition 51 offers regional or statewide public benefits, regardless of contributors. The campaign has raised $3 million, $2 million of which was spent gathering 700,000 signatures to qualify it for the November ballot.

In 1991, lawmakers passed a bill, aimed at the Planning and Conservation League, to prohibit initiative sponsors from including projects in exchange for campaign contributions. The league challenged the law, and in 1995 an appellate court declared it unconstitutional, finding that it violated the group's right to free speech.

"The essence of corruption is secrecy," wrote the appellate court. "However, there is nothing secret about the quid pro quo arrangements forbidden by SB 424. On the contrary, the voting public is fully informed of specific appropriations made in an initiative measure and can decide for itself whether to vote for it."

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