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Tobacco taxes are great, but Proposition 29 stinks

Proposition 29 includes a deal breaker. Raising money for California: Good. Discouraging smoking via a harsh tax: Great. Sequestering the money for a limited purpose: Bad. Really bad.

May 27, 2012|Michael Hiltzik

Responding to the charge that tobacco tax money could go out of state, Perata said the drafters could not figure out how to prevent California researchers from "working with scientists at Harvard or Johns Hopkins." (The stem cell measure figured that out in 2004 — simply require grant applicants to move to California, so that the program's spending could contribute directly to the state's economy.) But he also asserted that the new board could be relied on to flow grants to Californians. "This money is not going to be exported," he said.

With so many board members affiliated with California institutions, he may be right, although there's no such mandate in the measure. The real problem with Proposition 29 is its mandate to lock in a huge revenue stream for the narrow purpose of cancer research. That's a worthy endeavor, to be sure, but there are other pressing needs for the money.

Gov. Brown's latest budget proposal calls for cuts of $1.2 billion in Medi-Cal and $900 million in CalWorks (a relief program for families with children) and steep cuts in financial aid for college students and in court budgets. The University of California and Cal State systems are becoming crippled by 20 years of cutbacks in state funding, leading to soaring tuition charges. Tobacco-related illnesses create some of the burden on Medi-Cal and other public healthcare programs, yet a minimal portion of Proposition 29 revenue, if any, would go to helping taxpayers carry that burden.

With the overall state budget gap approaching $16 billion, how can anyone make the case for diverting a huge chunk of $800 million a year in new revenue to long-term scientific research, whether in California or not? Even if you believe that case can be made, the proper place to make it is in the Legislature, where all these demands on the budget can be weighed and balanced against one another — not at the ballot box, where the only choice is to spend it the way the initiative's drafters choose or not to raise it at all.

Perata rationalizes these provisions by arguing that this is the only way to get a tax measure passed in 21st century California. "I completely agree that the University [of California] is in real jeopardy of losing its reputation," he told me, "but the people who are interested in supporting a tax don't want it to be distributed by the Legislature." This attitude is "killing us," he agreed, but added, "you don't win any campaigns by telling the public they're wrong."

To hear an experienced politician like Perata throw up his hands like this is just sad. Yes, California voters are profoundly cynical about the legislative process. Unfortunately, one of the prime reasons is the failure of political leaders to do their jobs. Bailing out on the legislative process, resorting to ballot-box budgeting, and defending it as the only way to achieve one's ends? Perata should be ashamed.

Legislating by voter initiative, where the entire debate is conducted by television commercial, reduces all politics to an exercise in raising money. No one should be surprised that even veteran politicians such as Perata choose this easy way out, because raising money for political campaigns is the one thing American politicians do terrifically well.

But it doesn't serve the voters one bit. The benefits of driving up the cost of smoking to keep kids off cigarettes are obvious, but the structure of Proposition 29 is poisonous to the health of the body politic. It just hooks the voters on cheap non-solutions to our problems in the same way that Philip Morris hooks kids on tobacco. The first step to quitting the ballot-box addiction is to say no to wretched measures like this one.

Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at mhiltzik@latimes.com, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.

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