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Propositioning California

The presidential race in the Golden State is boring--but a slew of ballot initiatives have made November 2 interesting in Califorinia.

12:00 AM, Oct 29, 2004 • By BILL WHALEN
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WITH ALL ATTENTION focused on Florida and Ohio, it's tempting to pity California which, in this election at least, seems to have mattered most as the home of Jay Leno and The Tonight Show. Once again, the wealthy nation-state has lived up to its traditional role as the ATM of American politics. Not only does California give away money, it even outsources its political talent as evidenced by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's visit to Ohio.

So how do residents of deep-blue California get over the presidential blues? Simple. The nation-state keeps the masses entertained by loading up its ballot with a plethora of initiatives that sometimes clash, sometimes contradict, and oft-times befuddle even the most serious of policy wonks.

At issue in California next Tuesday are 16 ballot measures--not all of which, it turns out, are actually in play. One is what's called a "ghost" initiative--it's on the ballot, but not longer relevant. That's Proposition 65, which would prevent Sacramento from raiding local coffers to balance the state budget, has since been replaced by Proposition 1A, the result of a deal between Schwarzenegger and local government officials (try this for confusing: after 1A was drafted, the same folks who drafted Prop. 65 had to write the ballot argument against 65).

The other initiative that went bye-bye: Proposition 68, which sought to end the California Indian tribes' gaming monopoly and introduce slots to horse tracks and card rooms. Despite spending $24 million to mostly badmouth the tribes' monopoly, the Prop. 68 campaign realized it couldn't overcome Schwarzenegger's opposition (the Governator is starring in a TV ad against it and the rival Proposition 70, which would expand tribal gaming).

That leaves 14 initiatives, many of which can be lumped into one of two categories: purse-strings or heart-strings--in other words, dollars or emotions.

On the dollar side of the ballot:

* Proposition 64, which would change the state's business competition law to end so-called "shakedown lawsuits" against small businesses.

* Proposition 67, which would increase phone taxes by more than $500 million a year in an attempt to shore up the state's emergency-care system.

* Proposition 72, which would uphold a 2003 law requiring California's large- and medium-sized businesses to pay for employees' health insurance (critics says the mandate is a $7 billion tax).

Schwarzenegger opposes all three initiatives, claiming they're bad for the state's economy. This is keeping in character with his first year in office, when he exhibited a decidedly pro-market tilt when it came to economic growth.

Meanwhile, plucking at voters' heart strings:

* Proposition 61, which would authorize $750 million in bond money to expand children's hospitals.

* Proposition 63, which would raise taxes on $1 million earners to expand state mental health services.

* Proposition 66, which would soften up the state's "Three Strikes" law by redefining third-strike felonies.

Schwarzenegger also opposes these three initiatives, although on one of them he's at odds with a former co-star. Jamie Lee Curtis, who appeared with Arnold in True Lies", is starring in TV ads for Prop 61.

MEANWHILE, there's one California initiative that's managed to blend both emotions and economics into its message: Proposition 71, the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Initiative. The $3 billion bond, if approved, would make California the nation's leader in funding for embryonic stem cell studies by providing an annual $300 million to create a California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. That would be 12 times what the federal government spends on embryonic stem cell research and 18 to 33 times what California spends on breast cancer and AIDS research, respectively. The measure would also add another $6 billion in debt, which is why Schwarzenegger agonized over whether to support, oppose, or stay neutral. (He finally decided to endorse it.)

Proposition 71 is unusual in the company it keeps. For star power, there's Brad Pitt, who did a tour of a Los Angeles children's hospital earlier this week. Major donors include Microsoft's Bill Gates, who's chipped in $400,000 (with a $12 million war chest, Prop. 71 trails only the gaming initiatives in funding). By contrast, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, one of the largest donors to the "No on 71" campaign, has anted up a mere $50,000 (the "no" campaign has raised only about $200,000).