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Who's really putting up a smokescreen on Proposition 29?

June 01, 2012|By Michael Hiltzik
  • Cycling champ Lance Armstrong is one of the financial backers of Proposition 29.
Cycling champ Lance Armstrong is one of the financial backers of Proposition… (Reed Saxon/AP )

Cancer research advocates Sherry Lansing and Kristiina Vuori say I’ve fallen victim to a “red herring” campaign and a “smokescreen” put up by the tobacco companies in their opposition to Proposition 29. That’s the initiative on next week’s ballot to raise the state tax on cigarettes and devote the money mostly to cancer research.

They’re referring to my recent column urging a no vote on the measure, because it will divert funds from more immediate state needs, including health and welfare programs for children and the underprivileged. In an online piece, they say that how the money is spent is less important than that it gets levied in the first place -- though cancer research is a crucial need. Make cigarettes more expensive, and you’ll discourage smoking, especially by young people.

I agree with the latter point. But my column observed that the diversion of the funds is a fatal flaw in Proposition 29.

It’s not exactly surprising that Lansing and Vuori would see virtues in Proposition 29. Lansing is a member of the board overseeing the California stem cell program, which was created by a 2004 ballot initiative very similar, especially in its flaws, to Proposition 29. She’s also co-founder of a cancer research advocacy group. Vuori is president of Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute in La Jolla—which receives grants from the stem cell program and would also plainly be in line for Proposition 29 money. She is also director of the institute's cancer center.

What’s important here, however, aren’t their connections or motivations, but their argument. Start with their assertion that, despite indications that the money could flow out of state, Proposition 29 includes “clear language” stating that “funds generated by Proposition 29 are to be used in California.”

This is disingenuous in a way that ballot-box initiatives are almost always disingenuous. The measure states that some funds will have to be used in California, such as backfill for funds from earlier anti-tobacco initiatives that have disappeared as smoking diminishes. But two-thirds of the cigarette tax—possibly $500 million a year--will go to research, and there’s no restriction on where that can be spent.

The plain language of the measure states, “All qualified investigators, regardless of institutional affiliation, shall have equal access and opportunity to compete for the funds in this Act.” It also says that grants and loans “shall be awarded on the basis of scientific merit as determined by an open, competitive peer review process that assures objectivity, consistency, and high quality.” If Lansing and Vuori think there’s a California-only restriction hidden in those provisions, they need to check with former state Sen. Don Perata, Prop. 29’s chief author, who acknowledged to me that the money can go anywhere.

The larger problem with Proposition 29 is its pigeonholing of the money for cancer research rather than for immediate needs here in California that are absolutely dire. It’s all well and good to say that cancer research benefits everyone, but the real question is whether it should be the absolute top priority for a state that can’t afford to keep its children fed or offer them medical care in the here and now.

Lansing and Vuori say the fact that Prop. 29 “fails to provide funding for schools, roads or affordable housing” is irrelevant, because it was “was never intended to solve these problems.” 

In the context of the state’s needs, this is a rather callous approach to take. Let’s spell out why, so Lansing and Vuori won’t be so inclined to dismiss these necessities of life so casually.

-- From 2007 to 2009, some 400,000 California children lost their health coverage. State programs to provide many of them with healthcare are at risk from cutbacks in the state budget.

-- Some 578,000 families are enrolled in CalWORKS, the state’s welfare program for the disadvantaged. Gov. Jerry Brown’s current budget proposal calls for cutting the CalWORKS budget by $880 million. That's even more than will be raised from the tobacco tax. “CalWORKS,” by the way, stands for “California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids.” 

-- Brown also calls for withholding student aid under the Cal Grants program from 72,000 poor and working-class college-bound students. How many of them might play a role in curing cancer? We may never know.

That’s just the beginning of what might be cut because the state needs money—and won’t be able to lay its hands on the hundreds of millions of dollars that Lansing, Vuori, and their research colleagues are angling for. They don’t want voters to be reminded that there are competing demands for the tobacco money, and they do so by failing to mention that they exist, and also by presenting the spending on cancer research as the voters’ only choice.

It’s the only choice because the promoters of Proposition 29 designed it that way. Advocates of programs like this love to pass them in via voter initiatives because they leave no room to measure them against alternative needs. They should go back and rewrite the proposal so it serves Californians in all respects, rather than setting up a smokescreen of their own.


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