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A Look At Measures On November's Ballot

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September 13, 2012 1:08 p.m.

Thad Kousser, UC San Diego professor of Political Science

Carl Luna, professor of political science, Mesa College

Related Story: A Look At Measures On November's Ballot


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, it's Thursday, September 13th. Our top story on Midday Edition is the start of our general election coverage. In the few remaining weeks leading up to the election, we'll be bringing you debates and conversations with the candidates about the issues on the November ballot. Today, a nonpartisan discussion on many issues, state and local. Thad Kousser, professor of political science, welcome back.

KOUSSER: Hi, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: And Carl Luna, professor of political science at Mesa College.

LUNA: Good to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Let's start with the big one, proposition 30, Jerry Brown's tax initiative. This is two taxes rolled into one, isn't it it?

KOUSSER: Yeah, it has both a quarter cent sales tax that would be imposed for four years, and it hits people of all income levels, the poor especially hard. But most important in the way that is finally in a concrete realization of the occupy movement, this is a tax on the rich. An income tax increase that would last for a longer period that only hits people making over $250,000 in a single household or $500,000 filing jointly.

CAVANAUGH: How much money and this raise and who gets it?

KOUSSER: This is about $6 billion a year, and it would last for years and years to shore up the state budget. Most of the money will go to schools. And if this passes, some cuts that were cut into the state budget that were going to hit schools will not go into effect. And also money in this is dedicated for paying for law enforcement.

CAVANAUGH: I want to let our listeners know that they can access information about the propositions that we're talking about on our website. So if you'd like to, you can kind of follow along on our conversation. Carl, we keep hearing supporters of this initiative, this proposition 30, talking about dire consequences if it's not passed.

LUNA: Well, in Washington, we're facing at the end of this year, the fiscal cliff. And in California, we'll at least facing a really big drop, and when we hit bottom, we'll be hurt.

CAVANAUGH: How will people say that?

LUNA: The typical approach of people in government when they want more money is to say the house is burning, the house is on fire, and the voters sometimes become immune to that. This time, the house is smoking, if it's not definitely on fire. Voters have tight pocketbooks, they don't like taxes in general. They may like the idea that you're going to tax the rich more. We'll see how that resonates. Right now, it seems to be trailing in the polls.

CAVANAUGH: We've been hearing for a long time how much trouble California is in, how big the deficits are in our state. Thad, if I'm not mistaken, this initiative addresses the fact that the state -- assumed that it would pass?

KOUSSER: They want to give voters a clear choice. And they have had we've made about $20 billion in cuts in state government over the past few year, we haven't raised taxes. So either raise your own taxes, or we're going to have another $6 billion in cuts. And schools would take the biggest hit.

CAVANAUGH: When you're talking school, do you mean K-12 or colleges?

KOUSSER: $5 million in K-12, and half a billion dollars for cal state and UCs.

CAVANAUGH: What else gets cut if prop 30 doesn't pass?

KOUSSER: There's slight cuts all the way across the state government, so everyone shares the pain. But it's only a few million here and there in public health and safety.

LUNA: And there's not that many areas outside of public education, public safety, and the social programs. If you're looking for cut, those areas over the last 20 years have all done reductions. It's like that old show, the great race, when you're coming into port burning the ship to get there, you're down close to the waterline for a lot of school districts.

CAVANAUGH: I know that some public safety officials, although I don't think they've actually come out in support of prop 30, are hoping it will pass in San Diego County because doesn't it guarantee state funding for the prison realignment, the money to support more prisoners here in the county?

KOUSSER: Yeah, this year in response to a federal court ruling, the state had to trim its state prison population, so they sent a lot of people in state prisons in the central valley to county facilities all over the state. So this would lock in and provide a constitutional guarantee for that funding.

CAVANAUGH: We talked about all the reasons that supporters and state legislators are hoping that this tax initiative passes. What are the arguments against prop 30? And I'm going to open it up to both of you. Why are people who oppose this measure saying you should vote against?

LUNA: Tax, tax, are tax. We have a large portion that follows the Grover Norquist rule, you want government increasingly small enough to drown in a bathtub. If you give them more money, they'll simply waste it.

KOUSSER: Yeah, I think the no argument is twofold. It's both that state government, Sacramento, doesn't need more money. They should be able to tighten their belts themselves, and second that the higher burden is on richer Californian, and there's always the fear that this may just drive people from the state.

CAVANAUGH: And isn't there also the idea that so many California taxes are already weighted heavily toward boom and bust, aimed at people who make a lot of money? So when the people who make a lot of money don't, the state feels it?

KOUSSER: Right. We've seen the state take a huge fiscal hit by how much Facebook shares are doing. We rely so much on high-income earners, and more taxes on them means we're going to have a more variable state of income.

LUNA: Our state treasurer just defriended Facebook because of that.


CAVANAUGH: Proposition 38 would also raise taxes for schools. Molly Munger, who is she?

LUNA: A civil attorney in Los Angeles. She has connections in the Sacramento and political communities who saw the governor's action in not being direct enough in carving out protections for schools. She thought this would be a better way to get the money back to K-12. The problem for the governor and supporters of prop 30 is the two have canceling out provisions with it. They could split the vote and neither passes, or if prop 30 passed -- it creates more confusion. Ideally, you wanted one tax increase to the voters, otherwise they say no to everything.

CAVANAUGH: What's the difference?

KOUSSER: Prop 38 is bigger than the governor's, $10 billion a year, compared to $6 billion. All of the money goes to schools, rather than a split between mostly schools and some law enforcement. And third, it affects more people. So it doesn't have this sales tax. But the income tax provision is spread more widely. It hits middle income as well as upper income Californians. And that's why it's able to raise more money.

CAVANAUGH: What's the downside of it?

KOUSSER: By having that wider spread, one of the things that this does is increases the regressivity in California's taxes. If you're in the bottom 20%, you pay about $0.10 of every dollar you make to Sacramento. If you're in the top 1%, you pay about $0.07 on every dollar. Governor Brown's initiative would even that out. Molly's because it is spread across all income groups, it could exacerbate some of the regressivity.

LUNA: That's why prop 30 was crafted the way it was. The regressive tax hits lower income brackets harder, protects the middle class vote that you want to get, and you threw something in, law enforcement, K-12, university to, maximize support behind it.

CAVANAUGH: How are they polling?

LUNA: The only polls I've knot were on prop 30 right now, and it was down by about five points. Oh, it's close. The latest poll that came out yesterday had prop 30, 39 yes, 29 undecided. But usually the undecided don't usually go for the tax by a majority.

CAVANAUGH: One last question about these two tax initiatives. What and they both pass?

KOUSSER: The one with the most votes goes into effect.

CAVANAUGH: All right. That clears it up. Let's move onto the two big public safety measures. Prop 36 revises the three strikes law. Prop 34 repeals California's death penalty. Carl, how would prop 36 change three strikes?

LUNA: The notion of prop 36 is to reassess people who are on a three strike sentence and to look at it for future sentence. So you allow the trial judges in discretion in how long you will put people in depending how you categorize a serious violent felony. There is the case law which shows some people that you wouldn't consider violent offenders are being locked away for a long term we prop 30. And we're under a gun from the federal judges to take our prison population down. This would be an approach to weed out keeping the more violent offenders and saving a little money.

CAVANAUGH: And as you say, it's sort of retroactive. People who are in prison now on the three strikes law as it is written now, if this prop 36 is approved might have their sentences reevaluated.

LUNA: There's a possibility of doing that to sort out the ones who need to be in for permanent incarceration versus others. Those in opposition to it point out this could throw out serious offenders, getting out in the population, and it will add to crime. These laws were passed when the crime rate was going up, up, up. And the economy was doing okay. You can afford the prisons. Now with the economy not doing so well, and crime rates dropping, the framers of this bill hoped the public would be more open to allowing it to pass.

CAVANAUGH: Well, that's my question to you, Thad. People have been criticizing this aspect of three strikes for almost since it was enacted. The fact that the third strike that resulted in a life sentence didn't have to be violent or a serious felony. Why do you think this is on the ballot now?

KOUSSER: There's finally a political opening for it to get on the ballot. This is something that Mark Class, the father of this little girl in Petaluma who was killed, he opposed the ballot saying the third strike should have to be serious or violent. It shouldn't just be a property or drug crime. And today, what we've seen, the majority of the third strikers who get 25 years to life in California state prisons are put there based on another property or drug crime, rather than a violent crime. And the idea behind this initiative is to fix what the proponents say is a flaw in three strikes by casting that net widely to any kind of felony.

CAVANAUGH: You would think that a lot of prosecutors and victims' rights groups would be opposed to changing the three strikes law. Is that how it's shaping up?

LUNA: You're tending to see the criminal justice association opposing it, the police associations opposing it, the original authors oppose it. And that's actually -- the polling on it is interesting. Right now, the latest poll had a 43% in favor, 23% opposed, 29% undecided. But the author of the legislation is thinking that a number of the people supporting it think it's going to toughen three strikes, not weaken it want

CAVANAUGH: So people like it because they don't understand it?

LUNA: That may well be the case with this. And if they get better voter awareness, it will probably fail. Of

CAVANAUGH: Well, let's talk about a proposition that is struggling. Proposition 34 would end California's death penalty and replace it with life without the possibility of parole. I remember when this was trying to get on the ballot, it got a huge amount of signatures. People were surprised at the number of signatures that this initiative got. Just for the sake of conversation, would this also be retroactive? Those sentences to death would have their sentences basically commuted to life without the possibility of parole; is that right?

KOUSSER: That I'm not --

LUNA: Yes, I believe so.

KOUSSER: All 725 people currently on death row in California would have their sentences changed.

CAVANAUGH: Right. So from what I recall, this was introduced largely as a cost-saving measure presented to voters in that way. How much do supporters say it would save the state?

KOUSSER: Well, their argument, and the legislative analyst backs this up, is about $100 million a year. And this initiative takes that money and sends it down to local law enforcement and grants to do investigations of homicide and rape cases. So this is an argument made. We've seen nationally the death about the death penalty be about innocence projects. The proponents of this measure are much more focused on the death penalty and all the costs it takes to try a death penalty case in California

LUNA: And the reason this qualified, those opposed to the death sentence are strongly opinionated about that. And you can find that good cohort to sign the petition. The bulk of the population still favors the death penalty in California and across the nation. Many favor it for the false notion that it saves money. Whereas actually this ballot initiative shows you're paying a premium of $130 million or more a year to execute people. That doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. The price tag of justice shouldn't determine justice. But a lot of people support the death penalty for the wrong reason.

CAVANAUGH: And it is struggling in the polls now.

LUNA: It's significantly behind. It's about 30% in favor, 46% against. It seems unlikely the undecided is going to break in favor of the proposition.

CAVANAUGH: Interesting. Let's spend a few minutes on something completely different. Proposition 37 would require labeling of genetically engineered foods. The support seems to be growing in the polls for this measure. Do we know who is behind this proposition? Is there some health advocacy group? Do we know who brought this?

KOUSSER: I don't know where the money came from. But it's funny to see who it's going to help and hurt. Organic foods are exempted from this. So you could sell an organic food that could be genetically modified, and it doesn't have to be labeled. So the no side is saying this is picking winners and losers in our supermarkets

LUNA: This is interesting because conventional wisdom holds whoever spends the most money has the best chance to win. This proposition grew, dare I say, organically from the population who is concerned about modified food, nuclear power. There are a lot of groups with very little money that got this qualified for the ballot. And a lot of groups with a lot of money, Coca-Cola, monSanto, $25 million or more. And it's not buying them a lot of resonance with the voters. Voters here seem to not like genetically modified food. The argument against, at least they're questioning it, they want to see the label on it, the argument against putting the label on, it looks like that label on your tobacco or cigarettes, and suddenly this is somehow bad for you. Where most of the science shows that it's probably no worse for you than anything else that you have.

CAVANAUGH: I was doing checking, and it's believed that half the soy crop in north America has been genetically engineered. So do we know how this would change labeling?

KOUSSER: This is going to change labeling -- this is a sort of only in California proposition. You can't get more California than this. But it's going to affect labeling practices all across the country. If you want to sell in California, you have to change that label nationally. Just about every corn of cob you buy is going to have a little thing saying this is genetically engineered. All the produce would have to have labels on the bottom of the barrel, and actually on your can of bean, if it's genetically engineered, it's going to have to have something saying -- it doesn't say it's bad for you. It's just going to say it's genetically engineered

LUNA: Albertson's and Vons and stores are going to have to put a sign by their name, genetically engineered food.

CAVANAUGH: Who is going to monitor this?

KOUSSER: It's going to cost a million or two to have the department of public health set up in charge of doing this. But there could be big, big costs to the food producers. And they say they might have to pass that onto consumers. You're going to have to pay for that right to know.

CAVANAUGH: When we return, we'll talk about some of the local propositions, including a group of medical marijuana measures.


CAVANAUGH: My guests are Thad Kousser, and Carl Luna. If you want to follow along, you can read the propositions on our website. What stands out if you survey the local ballot measures are No. 1, the multiple school bond propositions, and No. 2, the Americas promoting the establishment of medical marijuana dispensaries. Let's start talking about the school bond measures. I count 11 of them. The biggest is for the San Diego unified school district, the county's largest school district. It's proposition Z, calling for two.a billion dollars in bonds. What can money raised on school bonds be spent on?

KOUSSER: I believe all the money has to go to infrastructure, building new buildings, getting computers, and the money can't go to teacher salaries and pensions and personnel costs.

CAVANAUGH: Precisely the kinds of things that will be -- supporters say will be in jeopardy if proposition third does not pass; is that right?

KOUSSER: Right. If you have to use your general fund, then you have less money to spend on the classroom and the teachers who are in it. What we've done at the state and local level is borrowed money to pay for infrastructure.

CAVANAUGH: There has been speculation that some districts might be using these bonds as a hedge against the possibility that the governor's proposition initiative doesn't pass. Could they find a way to use this money to make up for that difference?

LUNA: It’s very difficult under state law, then federal law, the moneys that come out to you, to switch moneys out of a bond, which will typically have a citizens' oversight committee looking over it, into nonbond related activities. They may have money set aside to do some of the things that the bonds will now fund, and you can move money over that way. But if the school bonds and bonds construction, that's one pot of money, that's your permanent ongoing stuff. The day to day is a disconnect. We pass bonds to build thing, but it's a tax increase to maintain them to be able to staff them and fund them. And this is why the schools have so much trouble balancing off their needs.

CAVANAUGH: One of the opponents, their arguments is that they say the school district has not spent the bulk of a $2.1 billion bond measure approved in 2008. So is that a lit criticism?

LUNA: Well, not really. When you get bond money in 2008, it takes a year or two or more to get into the bond markets and get the money. You have to get the money approved, are the local approval process, then the state architect's office, then they have to come back down, then you have to contract. You've got a third year bond, you're planning spend the money on that bond over the next 15 years. We had a construction plan that's going to last 12 year, and the bulk of that is backloaded while you're doing the construction. So that's unfair to spend somebody unless you spend it now and spend it all, you can't go to your next bond.

CAVANAUGH: Do school bond measures, are they usually successful?

KOUSSER: They are. And part of what's driving the increase in the number of school bonds, a few years ago, state voters lowered that hurdle down to only 55% of the vote. Now you just need to get 55%, and school bonds have been very successful.

CAVANAUGH: Recently we learned largely through coverage of voice of San Diego that a $105 million bond approved by voters in the Poway school district a couple years ago will wind up costing almost a billion dollars to repay. Carl, can you remind us how that happened?

LUNA: What happened was the board was watching television on a labor day weekend, and they saw the ad for no money down, no payments until 2030. They were convinced by an out of city investment group to engage in what's called capital appreciation bonds. It's basically an interesting-only -- or no payment, interest only mortgage. And over the course of this 40 year, instead of 30-year bond, it's going to be a 10-1 billion dollars ratio. It wasn't as bad as going to a pay-advance store, but it was not a very good deal.

CAVANAUGH: Is there any way that voters can find out how these bond measures are going to be financed?

KOUSSER: Usually the measure itself says what it's going to cost to repay. That usually means it's about twice the amount of the bond.

LUNA: And within the current bonds on the ballot, none of them are using the same mechanism as this.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, that makes -- that makes us all feel better I think. Now, some voters are actually going to see multiple measures that will raise their taxes, they're going to see state tax propositions and school bonds. Do you think that might have a cumulative effect on the voters and result in no votes?

LUNA: I don't think so. You've had some occasion, back with the governor's special election where the governors got into a no idea and knocked down everything. But typically they sort out local versus state. The things which they see a direct benefit to versus the things which they're not so sure about. And when not so sure, you vote no. If they've got kids in schools in the neighborhoods, they'll vote yes.

KOUSSER: I think we'll see on the state initiatives, where there are three tax initiatives, voters might vote for the first one. And that's why the governor fought so hard and changed state to law to put his proposition first.

CAVANAUGH: And yeah, actually first on the ballot, the positioning.

KOUSSER: Because it's a constitutional amendment, and he convinced the legislature to move all owl constitutional amendments first.

CAVANAUGH: Let's move onto medical marijuana dispensary, it's on the ballot in imperial beach, Solana beach, Del Mar. This is a highly charged proposition because of the recent crackdown on dispensaries by the U.S. attorney. What is going on here?

LUNA: You're seeing a change in general public attitudes toward medicinal marijuana. And it's interesting that these are not just in affluent community, college communities. It's not just Del Mar that's doing it. You're got two rival propositions on it in Lemon Grove. It's a raising social consciousness that maybe this is something we want to do, but it promotes a backlash because marijuana in any of its forms has been demonized since Reefer Madness in the '30s, and this becomes more of a social issue.

CAVANAUGH: What do the measures actually ask voters to authorize?

KOUSSER: They ask them to tell the city whether it likes it or not to set up a program for giving licenses to dispensaries. That I can't be near schools, they can't be next to each other, and also they make a promise, which is legally uncertain, to say that nobody can be arrested for it.

CAVANAUGH: And there's a tax provision involved in some of these as well. Isn't there in?

KOUSSER: Yeah, there's a tax provision, usually about two.5 cents tax that would go to local governments, and there's a question, can that be -- that's bigger than the amount of sales tax, $0.01 that normally goes to governments. Some cities have said we'll just collect $0.01.

CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, I think people looking at these initiative ares, these propositions about medical marijuana dispensaries might be very deeply confused. Of they hear about this federal crackdown underway, closing dispensaries in San Diego County, and then they see on their ballot when they go to -- do you want a dispensary in your city? Now, if voters say yes, will these dispensaries be able to open? Is this an open question? Does anyone know?

KOUSSER: There's still legal uncertainty, and all about what the federal DEA wants to do. I think at the end of the day, if they have been paying attention, they're going to know there's a lot of uncertainty. But I think you can cross off the medical in this. The public debate has shifted to a debate about marijuana legalization. Voters passed the medical bill in the '90s, then we had doctors, nurses, people thought about compassionate use. Right now, this is much more like a straight up marijuana legalization debate. Because the implementation that we've seen, medical marijuana seems to be a lot more about migraine prescriptions than cancer prescriptions.

CAVANAUGH: People would argue with you about that. Some are saying that because of the crackdown, this marijuana that they do use medicinally is no longer available to them because they're having difficulty growing it themselves.

LUNA: Land I think that that goes along with what Thad was saying. You have a debate, should you have marijuana at all in the society? That's what a lot of people are debating on, whether the medicinal idea with this crackdown to restrict marijuana, it's having the impact on the people who have the most need for it. They can't go to dispensaries, they can't grow it properly, and there are a lot of people in the population that would benefit from it. But a lot of people don't like the concept of even using it at all.

CAVANAUGH: And of course into this mix is, as I say, this crackdown by the U.S. attorney, Laura Duffey. She sent a letter to Del Mar officials who were actually obligated to put this on their ballot measure. It warned them that they are not ability from my ability under the controlled substance act. What does that mean?

KOUSSER: That means if they commit a drug crime, they're not immune. The ACLU and the proponents have argued that this isn't a drug crime. So there's again some legal uncertainty in this.

CAVANAUGH: Do you think that this is like a stepping stone toward a full-on legal challenge to what's going on in San Diego County, the drug crackdown, and basically a challenge to the federal government?

LUNA: This is a challenge to the basic notion of what the federal government and this current attorney and previous attorneys and administrations consistently have been looking at. How do you allow states to have their federalism and their autonomy? But it runs right into federal law. And I think that is right. We're heading toward a tipping point in this. You get enough cases and lawsuits and municipality, it's going to have to reach some sort of a resolution at a national level on the issue.

CAVANAUGH: Do you think these measures will pass?

LUNA: I don't think so.

KOUSSER: I think they are targeted in areas that supported marijuana legalization. So these are electorates that are real wildcards.

CAVANAUGH: Do you have any propositions that you'd like to bring to our attention?

LUNA: There are five interesting structural change propositions in the ballot. Escondido is trying to move to a charter city from a state law general law city, which would give them more discretion on how to organize themselves. Encinitas is trying to have an elected mayor and set up a stronger mayor system within it. Chula Vista is looking to make changes having district elections. Part of this comes about because voters aren't happy with the way the world is going. And if nothing else is working in your city, are rearranging the deck chairs sounds good.

KOUSSER: And prop 31, it changes the rules of the road for passing a budget in California and at the local level. It's put on by approximate bipartisan reform group, it's very complex, about six different propositions. It's flying under the radar right now because there's going to be hardly any money on either side. But it's a complex and interesting initiative that voters should get educated on.

CAVANAUGH: What is it specifically that they should know about this proposition?

KOUSSER: It says the state is going to pass the budget every two years rather than every one year. Is that a good idea? State and local governments seem to talk about performance goals rather than just how much money they're spending? And Sacramento legislators can only spend more money if they say we're going to balance this with cuts or tax increases so we don't have structural deficits in the future.

CAVANAUGH: What is the score of California forward in these propositions that they've put up? Some of them have passed, right?

KOUSSER: Well, California forward has been an endorser of other initiative ares put on by other groups in the past. This is the first one that's really been their baby that's come out of literally hundreds of community meetings up and down the state. It's going to be the first test of this major reform group.

CAVANAUGH: Thad Kousser, and Carl Luna, thank you both very, very much.

LUNA: Thank you.

KOUSSER: Thanks for having us.