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Losses called temporary setbacks

Property rights and tobacco propositions' backers will try again.

November 09, 2006|Evan Halper | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — Though California voters rejected propositions Tuesday to expand the rights of property owners and hike tobacco taxes, activists behind both measures said they were buoyed by the success of similar measures across the country and promised to renew their efforts.

The activists said that both propositions lost only narrowly and that although opponents held the line in California for now, momentum for their causes had been fueled by victories elsewhere.

Proposition 90 would have limited the ability of government agencies to seize private property for shopping centers and other private development. Its supporters cite nine other states where such limitations were passed.

And though a proposal to hike tobacco taxes, Proposition 86, was rejected by Californians, new taxes on cigarettes were approved in Arizona and South Dakota, and other anti-smoking measures were approved in Nevada, Ohio and Florida.

"We still have momentum," said Cass Wheeler, chief executive officer of the American Heart Assn., a leader in the push for increased tobacco taxes. "We will come back to fight another day in California."

Unlike the relatively modest 80-cent and $1 tax hikes on a pack of smokes approved by voters in Arizona and South Dakota, the California proposal attempted to quadruple the tax with a $2.60 increase.

Mark Baldassare, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, said voters may have balked at the size of the tax, as well as confusion about how the money would be spent. The proposal called for divvying the new revenue among many healthcare programs, including subsidies for hospitals that bankrolled it.

Tobacco companies blitzed the airwaves with advertisements warning that there were hidden goodies buried in the initiative meant to boost the profits of its sponsors.

"Voters saw there was a money grab by a special interest," said Carla Hass, spokeswoman for the No on 86 campaign.

Even so, Baldassare said, support for an increased tobacco tax in concept remains strong.

"I have no doubt something like this will be back in California," he said.

Organizers behind the failed property rights proposal also may have overreached. Landmark measures that passed in Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oregon and South Carolina focused exclusively on barring governments from taking property for private projects. The measures were a reaction to a 2005 Supreme Court decision that specifically permits local and state governments to remove people from their homes and to give the property to developers.

The process has been used to build shopping malls, auto dealerships and big-box stores.

But in addition to banning such seizures, the California proposal included provisions requiring that state and local governments compensate property owners if they adopt any zoning provision, law or regulations that lowers the value of homes or businesses.

That alarmed business groups, government agencies and urban planners, who warned that the proposal could paralyze city planning and hamper the state's ability to move forward with the road building, levee repairs and school construction projects in the $37-billion public works borrowing package approved Tuesday.

A broad bipartisan coalition sprang up against the measure and grew to include Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and such groups as the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Business Roundtable and the League of California Cities. Unions and environmentalists also joined the fight. The coalition spent millions fighting the measure.

Proponents, meanwhile, had almost no money in the bank as the election neared. They spent the bulk of their funding, which came from Manhattan real estate entrepreneur Howard S. Rich, getting the measure approved. Rich, a crusader for smaller government, also helped bankroll the property rights measures in other states.

On Tuesday, Proposition 90 captured 47.5% of the vote. In Arizona, a similarly ambitious measure passed with 65%.

"We are going to be back," said Kevin Spillane, spokesman for the Protect Our Homes Coalition. "We had the entire state political establishment against us, the press was hostile, we were badly outspent by deceitful opponents who distorted the issues, and we narrowly lost. With even modest advertising we would have won."

Potential donors in and out of the state "who sat on their hands this time around have seen it is clearly winnable," Spillane said.

Of course, measures don't always do better the second time around.

Proposition 85, which would have required parental notification 48 hours before a minor could obtain an abortion, was rejected by 54.2% of voters Tuesday, an even larger majority than that which defeated a virtually identical measure last year. That proposal, along with the tobacco tax hike and the property rights measure, was among the half-dozen items placed on the ballot through the costly and onerous signature-gathering process that were rejected by voters.

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