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Liberals, mark your ballots!

California's slew of ballot measures pose some interesting choices for the left.

October 31, 2010|By Harold Meyerson

How do I, a card-carrying liberal — if only liberals had it sufficiently together to issue cards — think my way through this year's crop of California ballot measures? Thusly:

Of the measures on November's ballot, three are genuine game-changers. Proposition 25 would reduce from two-thirds to a simple majority the number of votes required in each house of the Legislature to pass a budget. Proposition 26 would raise the threshold to enact regulatory and user fees from a majority vote to two-thirds. Proposition 23 would suspend a state law — the one requiring major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions — until pigs fly. (Well, actually, until unemployment in California drops to 5.5% for a full year, but that's a level that has been achieved for only three brief periods since 1970.)

Proposition 25 would strip from a legislative minority the ability to thwart majority rule in the Legislature by holding up passage of a state budget unless it can muster a two-thirds vote. California is the only state that requires a two-thirds vote to both pass a budget and to raise taxes. Proposition 25 won't affect the two-thirds requirement for taxes, alas, but it would at least reestablish for the budgetary vote the single most fundamental principle of democratic government: majority rule. The current two-thirds threshold undermines the democratic axiom that elections have, and should have, consequences, by making it all but impossible for elected officials to exercise their will. A vote for Proposition 25 is a vote for a functioning democracy.

The same democratic-majoritarian logic that dictates a yes vote on 25 dictates a no vote on 26, which would raise to two-thirds the number of votes required to enact regulatory fees on, for instance, businesses that make products with contaminants, or user fees for such things as camping in state parks. There's a broader point underlying the opposition to Proposition 26: In economic hard times, the likes of which we'll be enduring for a while, governments are compelled both to cut programs and raise taxes or fees. If we make it harder to raise taxes or fees than to cut programs — precisely what 26 would do (and precisely what the existing two-thirds requirement for raising taxes already does) — that creates a process in which the wealthy will be even more the beneficiaries and the poor will be even more the victims of public policy.

Proposition 23 would suspend California's global warming law for the foreseeable future, and thus eliminate the need for the state's biggest oil refineries to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases they spew into the skies. It is also the clearest example of how moneyed interests seek to use the initiative process to benefit themselves. In this case, those interests are Valero Energy Corp. and Tesoro Corp., Texas-based firms whose California refineries are among the state's largest polluters. These companies' owners, it's worth noting, do not live or breathe in California.

The truly interesting thing about Proposition 23 is how it pits the old-style economy of the Texas oil business against the chic clean-energy economy beloved of Silicon Valley capitalists. What the Texas troglodytes failed to appreciate was just how much money California's venture capitalists have sunk into clean-energy technology in California and Californians' determination to defeat a measure that would depress the market for such technology for decades to come. California's venture capitalists aren't always seeking to promote the greatest good for the greatest number of their fellow Californians, but in this instance, their stance against Proposition 23 would help both the state's labor force and the planet.

That brings us to two ballot measures that probably aren't as important as they appear. Propositions 20 and 27 address the decennial conundrum of redistricting. Proposition 20 strips from the Legislature the power to reapportion congressional districts and entrusts that task to a quasi-bipartisan redistricting commission, a process that state voters have already approved when it comes to carving up state legislative districts. Proposition 27 would abolish that redistricting commission, however, and throw the task of all redistricting back at the Legislature.

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