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Ballot guide, part I: statewide propositions - Office of Naval Contemplation

Oct. 17th, 2012

05:40 pm - Ballot guide, part I: statewide propositions

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Prop 30: Tax Increase (Governor's Proposal)

This proposition would increase the state sales tax from 7.25% to 7.5% (plus local surtaxes) and would create new state income tax brackets for households with taxable incomes over $250k, raising the top tax rate from 10.3% to 13.3%. The income tax increase would be retroactive to Jan 1, 2012 and would be set to expire Dec 1, 2019. The sales tax increase would take effect Jan 1, 2013 and would be set to expire Jan 1, 2017.

Increased revenues from the taxes (estimated at about $6 billion/year) would theoretically be earmarked for education (89% for K-12 and 11% for community colleges). The enacted budget assumes this measure passes, so the money from the tax increase is already baked into the spending figures. Total state+local K-12 education funding in the enacted budget is $61.5 billion, up $3.3 billion (5.3%) from last year, and community college funding is level at $6.5 billion. If this measure fails and all the money comes out of the education budgets as planned, the K-12 budget would instead fall $2 billion (3.3%) from last year, and the community college budget would fall $660 million (10%) from last year. It is important to note that this is a worst-case scenario for education: the legislature would also have the option of cutting spending from other areas of the budget (most likely a combination of welfare/medicaid, prisons, and transportation, these being the other big areas of the state budget) in order to reverse the education cuts.

Currently, California has the highest state sales tax rate, the 12th-highest combined state+local sales tax rate, and the second-highest peak income tax rate after Hawaii. Property and excise taxes are a bit lower than the national average, but overall, California's per-capita tax revenue is the 12th highest in the country. 37 states get by just fine with lower taxes than we do, which leads me to suspect that we're not getting particularly good value for our tax dollars. I'd much rather our legislature be forced to take a good, hard look at spending priorities and find a way to give us better value for the taxes we already pay.

I'll be voting no.

Prop 31: Package of budget process reforms.

This proposition is a bundle of several state and local budget process reforms. The big ones are:

  1. Switching the state from one-year budgets to two-year budgets. Given the inordinate length of time it takes for the legislature to settle on a budget, switching to a two-year cycle would be beneficial in that budget standoffs would happen half as often, and state agencies would have a longer planning horizon that they might be able to use to spend a bit more efficiently. On the other hand, a two-year cycle makes it more likely that estimates and projections will be way off and the budget would need emergency revisions. 19 states have two-year budget cycles and 30 other states have one-year budget cycles, and most states in both categories seem to do better with their budgets than we do. I rate this as mostly harmless at worst, potentially moderately helpful at best.

  2. In a "budget emergency", when the revenue winds up below projections by enough to unbalance the budget, the Governor would be granted expanded powers. Under current law, an emergency session of the legislature is called, which then must pass a revised budget for the Governor's signature. Under this proposition, there would be a time limit of 45 days for the legislature to act, after which the Governor would have the option of unilaterally cutting spending in a manner similar to the line-item veto power he already has. This provision seems like a pretty clear win to me.

  3. Creating a "pay-as-you-go" provision, requiring the legislature to offset any spending increases or tax cuts of more than $25 million/year. This could be worked around through the initiative process. I like making it harder to raise spending, but I don't like making it harder to cut taxes. Given California's current political climate and fiscal situation, the latter seems like a bigger concern than the former.

  4. Creating a process for local governments to create "strategic action plans", which would provide accountability metrics for local spending, make it easier for different local governments to coordinate on joint projects, and provide a mechanism for local governments to grant themselves waivers (subject to veto by state regulatory agencies) from state regulations that conflict with the strategic action plans. This strikes me as gimmicky, but potentially moderately helpful. I've heard concerns that this is intended to undermine city and county governments in favor of newly-established sub-state regional governments, but I've read the relevant text of the proposition closely and don't see much cause for concern here.
I'll be voting yes.

Prop 32: Limits on Payroll Deductions for political advocacy

There's a fair amount of fluff in the text of the initiative about banning direct contributions by unions and corporations to candidate funds, which is already illegal, and against government contractors bribing elected officials in hopes of influencing contract awards, which is also already illegal.

The main provision of this proposition which would actually have an effect is a requirement that union members give explicit written consent every year towards a portion of their dues being used for political advocacy. I am moderately in favor of this, especially where public employee unions are concerned, since the combination of laws requiring all public employees to pay union dues and the dues coming out of paychecks paid by the state has the perverse effect of siphoning taxpayer funds directly to political advocacy groups which represent interests that substantially conflict with the interests of the taxpayers. Requiring opt-in goes a long way towards fixing the situation, making it a choice by individual public employees to spend a portion of their paychecks on political advocacy. I'd prefer simply allowing public employees to opt out of union affiliation altogether (in most cases, they can decline union membership, but still must pay 90+% of union dues as a so-called "fair share fee"), and I'd prefer that any paycheck protection provisions apply only to public employee unions (exempting unions representing only private-sector employees), but we vote on the ballot propositions we have, not the ones we want.

I'll be voting yes.

Prob 33: Car Insurance Persistency Discounts

This would make it legal for car insurance companies to give a discount to new customers who have had continuous coverage for the past five years. I have no idea why this is illegal in the first place, and I think car insurance companies should be free to have any pricing structure they want, so long as they present it honestly to their prospective customers.

I'll be voting yes

Prop 34: Abolish the Death Threat Penalty

This would commute all pending death sentences in California to life imprisonment without parole, and would abolish death sentences going forwards.

There are serious problems with the death penalty in California, of which the biggest are 1) the risk of wrongful conviction, and 2) the long, drawn-out, expensive process for administering it, which ruins any deterrent effect that an effective death penalty might have because hardly anyone actually gets executed (there have been over 800 death sentences in California since the death penalty was reinstated in 1977, resulting on only 14 actual executions, hence my use of the term "death threat penalty"). The former I see as a major problem with the criminal justice system in general, not specific to the death penalty: imprisoning an innocent for decades is a lesser evil than executing him, but is still a great evil. The issue must be fixed in the general case rather than papering over the most severe consequences of it. The latter I see as a strong argument for reforming the death penalty process in California, but as a philosophical proponent of the death penalty, I'd much prefer to leave the door open for the legislature to act in a way that would reform the death penalty constructively (preferably combined with reforms to the criminal justice system in general to reduce the risk of wrongful convictions for all categories of punishment) rather than passing an initiative that would close the door altogether.

I'll be voting no

Prop 35: New criminal charges and increase penalties for human trafficking

Given that kidnapping, involuntary servitude, and rape are already considered serious crimes carrying harsh penalties, I'd need to hear some pretty convincing arguments that these charges and their penalties are not sufficient for human trafficking. This case has not been made to my satisfaction, and the arguments I have heard in favor of this measure sound like a classic "moral panic" issue.

Unless I hear some much better arguments for this, I'll be voting no.

Prop 36: Modification of the three strikes law

Under current law, criminal penalties for felonies escalate on the basis of prior convictions for "violent" or "serious" felonies. With one prior conviction, penalties for a second violent or serious felony double. With two prior convictions, any felony conviction comes with a minimum sentence of the greater of 25 years or triple the ordinary sentence, and may be increased by the judge to anything up to life imprisonment. The idea is that repeat offenders of serious crimes prove themselves persistently dangerous to society and should be locked up to prevent them from re-offending yet again. Since this law (and other laws increasing prison sentences for serious crimes) has passed, crime rates have indeed gone down, but the degree to which this is due to Three Strikes and related measures is highly debatable.

In the years that Three Strikes has been in effect, some major bugs with the legislation have come to light. The biggest is that the California Criminal Code has a number of "wobbler" offences which are normally misdemenors, but which can turn into felonies under certain circumstances, and one of those circumstances is if the accused has prior felony convictions. This stacks with Three Strikes, so there are people serving 25+ year prison sentences for a third strike of shoplifting or simple drug possession.

Back in 2004, there was another measure to amend Three Strikes in order to fix this, requiring that the third strike be a "violent" felony. However, the CCC's definition of "violent felony" is pretty narrow, excluding things like arson, vehicular manslaughter, and residential burglary. That measure was voted down.

This measure is narrower than the failed 2004 amendment, allowing the third strike, like the first two strikes, to be either "serious" or "violent". I've gone over the list of "serious felonies" and together with the list of "violent felonies", it seems pretty comprehensive of the sorts of things which could reasonably be third strikes.

Whether you support or oppose the idea of Three Strikes, this seems like a good measure. If you support Three Strikes, this measure fixes the biggest problem with it while preserving the core intent. If you oppose Three Strikes, this measure mitigates the worst effects of it until such time as you have the option of voting to repeal the whole thing.

I will be voting yes.

Prop 37: Mandatory labelling of genetically engineered food

This measure would require any food product that has been "genetically modified" (defined as DNA splicing or in-vitro hybridization) to be labelled.

First, this is silly. All food is genetically modified through some combination of the following processes:
  1. Random mutation and natural selection, then we hunt or gather it an eat it.

  2. Random mutation and selective breeding

  3. Forced hybridization of chosen selectively-bred strains

  4. Exposing parent plants to radiation in order to increase the frequency of random mutations, then selectively breeding the offspring that show desirable traits

  5. Finding specific genes that code for proteins expected to produce desirable traits and splicing them into a strain
This measure would require labelling for #5 and some cases of #3 (where the hybridization takes place in a lab rather than in a field), while it strikes me that these are probably the areas of least concern, where actually have some clue what we're doing, whereas most of the others resemble in some measure attempting to repair a watch with a hammer and chisel. #3 and #4 are particularly common, the combination of these two techniques being a major component of the "green revolution" which has allowed food production to keep up with population growth over the course of the second half of the 20th century.

Every single one of these process can produce results we probably don't want to eat. Take wild-type belladonna, for instance. In each category, responsible cultivation requires growing new strains and observing their traits to make sure they actually have the desired traits and haven't somehow picked up undesired traits. Over the millennia that mankind has been practicing agriculture, we've gotten pretty good at this.

Maybe for whatever reason, you want to judge for yourself the safety, nutrition, etc of your food. This proposition won't really help you do it, as it paints far too broad a brush to be useful in this respect. You'd need to know the specific strains and cultivars used, or at the very least who developed the strain or cultivar (so you can judge by the institution's reputation for quality).

Second, the bill's approach is backwards. Say you don't agree with me and you think there is value in being able to seek out foods that aren't genetically modified. Seek out food providers who voluntarily label their foods and non-genetically-modified. There's a fair number already (try Whole Foods to find some), and if enough people buy them, there will be more, the same way "organic" food labelling took off in the 90s. The proper role of government here is to provide a reasonable and consistent definition for voluntary labelling, not to force labelling (and the associated cost and hassle for food providers) for the dubious benefit of people who probably don't care all that much.

I'll be voting no

Prop 38: Tax Increase (Molly Munger's proposal)

This is an alternative proposal to Prop 30, championed by Molly Munger (a civil rights attorney and progressive activist). Unlike Prop 30, this would not increase sales taxes, but would increase income taxes by quite a bit more, and for almost everyone rather than just the top few percent of income earners. The lowest bracket would be unchanged at 1%, the 2% bracket would rise to 2.4%, the 4% bracket would rise to 4.7%, the 6% bracket would rise to 7.1%, the 8% bracket would rise to 9.4%, the 9.3% bracket would rise to one of four brackets ranging from 10.9 to 11.3%, and the 10.3% bracket would rise to one of two brackets at 12.4 or 12.5%.

This would take effect Jan 1, 2013 and would be set to expire Jan 1, 2025.

The projected revenue of $10 billion/year would be earmarked for a combination of increased spending on K-12 education (60%), early childhood development programs (10%), and (for the first four years) paying back bond measures (30%).

I oppose this for the same reasons I oppose Prop 30. I'll be voting no.

Prop 39: Multistate income tax modifications

This would modify the way the California taxable income of multistate corporations is calculated. Under current law, corporations can choose between "three-factor allocation" (the percentage of their profits considered taxable by California is determined by the percentage of their payroll, property, and sales that are in the state) and "single-sales-factor allocation" (based on percentage of sales alone). Three-factor allocation used to be standard among states with a corporate income tax, but over the last decade or so, most states have shifted over to single-sales-factor, since three-factor allocation can be avoided by moving operations out-of-state, but single-sales-factor allocation cannot be avoided without refusing to sell to a state or abandoning operations in the state altogether. California recently switched from mandatory three-factor to allowing corporations to choose between the two options. This proposition would require the use of single-sales-factor allocation, netting about $1 billion/year in additional revenue and simplifying the state's tax code.

If the money were to be used to cut other taxes, or perhaps even just to close the state's deficit, I'd be inclined to support it. However, the measure earmarks half the additional revenue for increased spending on education, and the other half to "create energy efficiency and clean energy jobs". In my view, the state spends far too much already, and the latter in particular stinks of corporate welfare.

I will be voting no

Prop 40: Referendum on redistricting

This was the first election cycle where redistricting was done by the new citizen juries rather than by the legislature. The CAGOP didn't like the new map for the State Senate and got this measure on the ballot in hopes of getting it rejected and replaced by a new map drawn by the fallback mechanism (a three-judge panel, I think). I haven't heard any arguments I find compelling for rejecting the map, and in any case, the sponsors of the referendum dropped their support for it after losing a court case to get the old districts used for this year's elections pending the results of the referendum.

I'll be voting yes, to approve the map.


[User Picture]
Date:October 18th, 2012 06:46 am (UTC)
I ordered an absentee ballot this year, and the only questions on it were President, Senator, and Representative. I was kind of confused by this but just assumed there were no propositions. Apparently that's not true.

Any idea why I might have gotten that, and whether there's any way to vote on propositions given that I've already sent in my absentee ballot?
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[User Picture]
Date:October 18th, 2012 07:13 am (UTC)
My best guess is that for some reason they think you're still in Ireland or Haiti. Expatriate US citizens can vote in federal elections based on their last place of residence in the US, but not necessarily in state or local elections.


Since you've already sent in your ballot, you're probably out of luck. You're best bet would probably be to contact your county's registrar of voters; they'd know for sure if there's a way to fix it for this election, and you'd want to contact them anyway in order to get things cleared up for next election.
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[User Picture]
Date:October 18th, 2012 12:32 pm (UTC)
That makes a lot of sense. Thank you.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]
From:Caren Osgood
Date:October 19th, 2012 04:59 am (UTC)
Just to comment on your analysis of genetically modified foodstuffs: I think you give too little credit to the potential for harm due to technique #5 that you have listed. Not that labeling will really make a big difference, but this type of genetic modification is quite a bit different from the others that we have practiced for decades, centuries, or millenia. Other techniques take genetic traits that are already present in small percentage of a population of plants and selectively breed them to become the whole population, or change regulatory genes to increase or decrease production of certain substances that the plant already produces. Actual "new" genes coding for entirely new substances are pretty darn rare to happen due to methods 1-4 (though forced hybridization can introduce some). However, method #5 can introduce pretty much any chemical we want into pretty much any plant we want. This is a bad idea. We can make plants that produce their own insecticides to increase productivity without spraying. Then, even if the insecticides are truly 100% safe for mammalian consumption as we've tested them to be (which may or may not be true), the plants can share the genes with other plants via viruses, cross-pollination, etc. as well as changing the whole ecosystem by killing pollinators and other non-target insects. These genes can come from fungi, bacteria, etc., many sources that are not otherwise able to share genes with plants. We are already seeing major problems with honeybees dying from insecticides we are spraying and crop productivity problems from lack of pollination. However, we can fix this by stopping the use of these insecticides. If we are growing a GM crop that produces these insecticides though, we can't take it back. Even if we stop growing it on purpose there will be gene sharing and seed spills causing those plants to go wild and it will be out of our control. Once you take a gene, stick it in a plant, and grow it outdoors, it has the potential to escape and be out there forever.

Not that this single ballot measure dealing with labeling is really addressing the environmental responsibility issues inherent in GM crops, but it does at least make it a little easier for people to use their consumer dollars to express their opinion on it. In my experience, most of the foods that voluntarily label as "organic," etc. also market to a different subset of people and price accordingly, whereas having everyone label would allow people to differentiate between products that are not froo-froo organic Trader Joes overpriced hippie food (apologies for the hyperbole).
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