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Go Bing

The celebrity engine behind California's Proposition 87 fight.

12:00 AM, Oct 20, 2006 • By BILL WHALEN
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NO DOUBT ABOUT IT, the California ballot is a special place. Not only does it let citizens exercise their right to vote, but for the left it's a chance to exorcise some serious demons.

In all, Californians will vote on 13 initiatives next month. And, to be fair, some probably matter more to conservatives than liberals. That would include Proposition 83, a "Jessica's Law" measure which would keep child molesters in jail for 25 year to life, and Proposition 85, which would impose a 48-hour waiting period and parental notification for minors seeking an abortion. But in this election, what stands out most is a string of measures that seek to punish what, from the left's perspective, are the horsemen of the Republican apocalypse.

So who is being targeted for a ballot-box gelding? California's business community, for one. Proposition 89 calls for a $200 million income-tax increase for corporations and financial institutions to pay for public financing of campaigns. With a ban on corporate donations to independent expenditures, businesses would be all but absent from the initiative process--opening the door for, say, a ballot measure establishing a single-payer healthcare system in California. And that happens to be the dream scenario for the folks behind Prop. 89, the California Nurses Association.

Big Tobacco also stands to lose big. Proposition 86 would quadruple the state sales tax on cigarettes from $0.87 to $3.47 a pack--putting California in the position of trying to discourage smoking while at the same becoming more hooked on cigarette sales to underwrite public health spending.

But the highest-profile target of all is Big Oil. Proposition 87--a.k.a. the "Clean Alternative Energy Act"--would place a severance tax on crude oil from California wells. The proceeds (as much as $4 billion over a decade) would go to efforts to develop alternative fuels and reduce dependence on imported oil.

And that's where the fun begins.

ACCORDING TO CALIFORNIA'S SECRETARY OF STATE'S OFFICE, Prop. 87's competing "yes" and "no" campaigns already have raised more than $105 million--a new record for California initiative fight. The "no" campaign has compiled a $60 million war chest, thanks in large part to Chevron (who shelled out $22 million) and Aera Energy, a joint venture of Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell, (in for nearly $13 million).

Fueling the "yes" side is Stephen Bing, known best as a Hollywood playboy (most notably for his nasty paternity flap with Elizabeth Hurley) and a loyal donor to liberal causes. It's not surprise that the Bing-supported "yes" side has a Hollywood look and feel. That begins with a campaign script that keeps getting sent back to rewrite.

Proposition 87 campaign began demanding that oil companies to pay their "fair share." The message then shifted to a screed against realpolitik (the "yes" campaign ran a TV ad featuring Arabs burning an American flag, oil tankers and Lee Raymond, Exxon's untelegenic CEO). The latest strategy moves from petro to retro, with separate TV ads starring Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Here's Clinton's ad is titled "Independence." Gore's ad, his first since his presidential run, is vintage drone Gore:

Here is the truth the oil companies won't tell you. Half the foreign oil they import to California is from the Middle East. As a result, California is dangerously dependent on foreign oil. Proposition 87 means more alternative fuels, wind and solar power. And that means less oil dependence. Prop 87 is the one thing Californians can do now to clean up the air, help stop the climate crisis and free us from foreign oil. The sooner we do it, the safer we will be.

BING'S SUPPORT of Prop. 87 has marked the return of the beautiful people to the initiative process. Sixteen years ago, Californians rejected Proposition 128, the so-called "Big Green" initiative that sought to address coastal pollution, pesticide regulation, and the reduction of greenhouse gases and chlorofluorocarbon emissions. "Big Green" was that year's cause célèbre for celebs, supported by the likes of Cher, Goldie Hawn, and Olivia Newton-John. Proposition 87 is also banking on star power: in addition to Clinton and Gore, the campaign has trotted out actresses Julia Roberts, Geena Davis, and Jamie Lee Curtis and Virgin CEO Richard Branson to bare their eco-souls.

But is that a smart way to campaign in California? While the "yes" side has gone Hollywood, the "no" campaign has hammered home a simple message of higher taxes and more reliance on imported oil by discouraging in-state drilling--with not a celebrity to be seen. That simple message may be working: the Field Poll has Prop. 87 sliding from a 52 percent to 31 percent advantage to a margin of only 44 percent to 41 percent, in favor. Traditionally, initiatives that slip below 50 percent tend not to recover on Election Day.

Should Prop. 87 lose, proponents will blame bad timing. Since July, gasoline prices in California are down roughly 20 percent. But a better explanation would be that California voters are outright hostile to ballot measures that raise taxes or add bureaucracy, no matter how politically correct or beautifully packaged they are. While Proposition 87 struggles, Prop. 86 has 53 percent support (down 10 points since the summer). Meanwhile, Prop. 89 is dead in the water, with only 25 percent support. Another tax measure--Proposition 88, which is a $50 parcel tax on homeowners to raise money for class-size reduction and school-safety programs--is now an officially "orphaned" initiative, since its backers have abandoned its campaign.

Perhaps the slick Clinton-Gore ads will turn the tide and rescue Prop. 87 from defeat. But this past June, Californians were asked to raise taxes on the wealthy to finance a universal preschool program. That initiative, Proposition 82, received a scant 39 percent in an election driven by a Democratic gubernatorial.

No wonder Prop. 87 supporters won't stop thinking about tomorrow. For these kinds of initiatives, the past hasn't been very kind.

Bill Whalen is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he follows California and national politics.