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`Orphan' Initiative Is Left in Cold

Prop. 88's big-money backers stopped giving after voters shunned the parcel tax. Many such failures are abandoned.

October 11, 2006|Evan Halper | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — It must have seemed like a good way for two politically connected Silicon Valley millionaires to donate a slice of their fortunes: bankroll a campaign for a $50 annual property tax to help fund schools.

Netflix founder Reed Hastings and venture capitalist John Doerr jump-started the effort with nearly $7 million. The contributions, used to pay signature gatherers, consultants and attorneys, were enough to secure a spot for the parcel tax on the November ballot as Proposition 88.

The intricacies of the measure are contained in the thick voter guides now being crammed into millions of California mailboxes. Not in the packet are details that could doom the initiative before a single ballot is cast: Its wealthy backers have long since stopped giving, after public opinion surveys showed weak voter support for the tax, and organizers say they are unlikely to air a single television ad.

The $50 property fee would raise about $470 million a year for class-size reduction, school safety and after-school programs, instructional materials, and building construction and modernization. Elderly and low-income Californians would be exempt from the new tax.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday October 12, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 49 words Type of Material: Correction
Healthcare: An article in Wednesday's California section about abandoned ballot measures identified the California Healthcare Foundation as a trade group for hospitals that backed out of an initiative campaign in 2004. The trade group was the California Healthcare Assn. The California Healthcare Foundation is an independent, nonpartisan healthcare philanthropy.

But Capitol insiders already have dismissed the tax measure as an "orphaned" initiative, one of many that have befallen such a fate in recent years. Whimsical millionaires, unions, large corporations and activist groups routinely contribute piles of cash to bring a measure before voters, only to walk away well before election day.

Sometimes measures are left to wither on the ballot. At other times, reams of signed initiative petitions, collected at a cost of up to $4 a name, are tossed in a recycling bin without being submitted to election authorities.

"It adds to the overall feeling that the whole process is loony," said Barbara O'Connor, a professor of communications at Cal State Sacramento. "The public is getting really tired of legislators and special interests using the initiative process so cavalierly."

In 2004, the California Healthcare Foundation, a trade group for hospitals, spent $2.6 million to put a measure on the ballot that would have created a tax on phone calls to fund emergency rooms and other services. After the measure qualified to go before voters, the group backed out of the campaign, crippling its chances. Voters rejected it.

Also that year, card clubs and horse racetracks spent $27 million on a measure that would have allowed them to install slot machines. A month before the election, they pulled the plug on the campaign for the foundering proposal. Voters crushed it.

Last year, the powerful California Teachers Assn. spent millions on campaign consultants and signature gatherers for a measure that would have raised property taxes on businesses. The group withdrew it before it qualified for the ballot.

Organizers cut and run for various reasons. Sometimes backers are overeager and unrealistic about voters' potential enthusiasm. Sometimes it's political consultants, envisioning a multimillion-dollar payday -- win or lose -- who get ahead of themselves.

Or a proposal to raise one tax lands on the ballot, only to end up competing with other measures that would hike taxes. And campaigns can be deceived by upbeat results of early opinion polls taken before voters have had a chance to digest the facts.

"A lot of the people behind these initiatives don't think strategically," said Republican political consultant Tony Quinn. "They just think, 'The public will be so enthralled with my measure.' "

Quinn describes the millionaires behind Proposition 88 and other ballot measures as "wealthy people for whom politics is a kind of plaything.... They get some fancy idea like this parcel tax, end up confusing and annoying voters and distracting from more serious measures."

Hastings, who declined to comment, is no political neophyte. He is a former president of the state Board of Education who has been influential in shaping the state's charter school policies.

In 2000, he and Doerr, a partner in the Bay Area venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, worked with the California Teachers Assn. to win passage of a measure that lowered the threshold of voters needed for local school districts to pass construction bond measures.

Veteran political consultant Rick Claussen, who was involved in the parcel tax campaign, declared it all but dead last month.

Claussen told the Sacramento Bee that intense anti-tax sentiments among voters led him to advise Hastings that "it was better to let go of this one." He declined requests to expand on those comments.

Thad Kousser, a political science professor at UC San Diego, isn't surprised by the events.

"You can get just about anything on the ballot for a million dollars," he said. "You often have things qualifying that haven't passed any true test of voter support. That's why two-thirds of all initiatives fail."

Not everyone has given up on Proposition 88.

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