California Initiative Sinkhole

Californians who grumble about being left out of the national electoral conversation these days certainly can’t complain there’s nothing going on in the Golden State this year. For one thing, an independent redistricting process combined with the new Top Two ballot system (which basically abolished party primaries) have created a very turbulent congressional landscape that could produce significant Democratic gains even though some Democratic incumbents will lose to others.

But as usual, there are also a number of important ballot initiatives, several sponsored by very wealthy individuals with an ax to grind or some advantages to pocket.

The Big Bertha from the point of view of the future functioning of the state is Gov. Jerry Brown’s Prop 30, backed by virtually every Democratic office-holder or interest group in the state. It would temporarily raise sales taxes and high-end income taxes with the proceeds earmarked for schools–particularly California’s struggling higher education system. The usual anti-tax forces in the state (including the entire GOP) are opposing Prop 30, but the real problem is a competing initiative (Prop 38) sponsored by a wealthy liberal activist named Molly Munger that would raise income taxes across the board and directly distribute the proceeds to schools. Munger is spending big chunks of her own money to attack Prop 30, and the scene is complicated by her conservative brother’s heavy involvement in the anti-30 campaign (as explained in a fine TAP article by Harold Myerson). The fear among Democrats is that both 30 and 38 will go down in the crossfire, which would create a state budget crisis dwarfing those of the recent past, and a potential shutdown of admissions by some state colleges.

But potential financial support for Prop 30 is being threatened by the preoccupation of the state’s unions with another initiative, Prop 32, one of those duplicitous “goo goo” initiatives that claim to aim at “special interest” involvement in politics but actually just target labor through a “paycheck protection” provision that would ban union use of dues for political purposes. California unions have raised $54 million to fight Prop 32 (which is finally beginning to lose steam in the polls) and have also contributed around $30 million to the Prop 30 campaign. Something may have to give in the final stretch.

Meanwhile, other big-money folk are funding other initiatives that will soak up attention, including one to boost sentences for human traffickers (gratis of former Facebook exec Chris Kelley), one to kill a complicated corporate tax loophole, and still another to change an arcane auto insurance law.

Lord help poor California voters trying to negotiate the ballot this year. But they’re used to it.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.