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California’s Most Expensive Ballot Measure

Cover image for podcast episode

PHOTO BY MATT HOFFMAN

Above: Uber and Lyft drivers protest at the San Diego International Airport demanding higher wages, May 8, 2019.

Major money fuels California's Prop 22, how San Diego's Measure E could impact the city's climate plan, and the partisan battle for control of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.

Speaker 1: 00:00 Record money is being spent to fight a law written by a San Diego assembly woman, prop 22 promises to keep the gig economy afloat, but at what cost rethinking San Diego's neighborhoods in the era of climate change, uh, one local ballot measure could change the way we build for the future. And as San Diego County on the verge of a big political shift, a high stakes election for the board of supervisors, I'm Mark Sauer and the KPBS round table starts now welcome to our discussion of the week's top stories. I'm Mark Sauer and joining me at this remote edition of the round table. John Meyer is Sacramento Bureau chief for the Los Angeles times, reporter McKinsey, Elmer, a voice of San Diego and Jesse Marks associate editor at voice of San Diego. The fight was nasty in the legislature, and if anything, it's gotten even more nasty as a ballot measure.

Speaker 1: 01:01 Now before California voters proposition 22 is backed by ride share companies, Uber and Lyft, and other app based enterprises. It asks voters to okay, special employment rules for their drivers, and they're spending an eye-popping amount of money in playing hardball on a scale that has liberal Senator Bernie Sanders crying, foul from three time zones away. Joining me to analyze this remarkable political scrum is John Myers Sacramento Bureau chief for the Los Angeles times. John, welcome to round table. Thanks very much set the table for us here. What do Uber and Lyft and these other app based companies want voters to do that? The Democrats controlling California state government has had so far refused.

Speaker 2: 01:42 I really, in a nutshell, what they want is they want a unique set of, uh, workplace rules of employment rules for their drivers. Uh, you know, roll back the clock to 2018. When the California Supreme court, uh, issued a ruling that really, uh, shook the workplace for a lot of industries in California, limiting the use of independent contractors, suggesting that far more people who work in this state should be considered employees of companies then, uh, just for hire folks. And so as the legislature went through this process to codify that ruling and expand that rolling. In some cases, the app based companies, Uber, Lyft, GrubHub, DoorDash, Postmates, uh, you know, all of them insisted that their business model would not work. If those drivers had to be employees and they wanted a special deal, they didn't get the special deal. And so they said, they're going to go to the ballot and that's pretty conventional in California to go to ballot. And that's where they are asking the voters to give them this special deal that they could not get here in Sacramento.

Speaker 1: 02:41 And it gets complicated pretty quickly, but break down the arguments for passage of prop 22, explain the consortium, put together to try and win them.

Speaker 2: 02:49 Well, certainly the, the main argument is, is that, uh, that, that these companies need this, uh, special deal to survive. Uh, they will argue that these drivers, if prop 22 passes, we'll be better off than really any independent contractors in other, uh, businesses in California, that they will have set number of benefits. They will be guaranteed a wage that is at least 120% of whatever the minimum wage is and the community they're driving. They will have access to health benefits. Uh, they will have access to some training, to some safety issues. Again, things that independent contractors don't always get. Of course, what the, um, the supporters of prop 22 are not pointing out is that those, those drivers would have more generous benefits if they were employees. But the real crux of this is do the drivers, uh, do the drivers get something and is something, uh, enough, and is that what the companies need to stay in business in California? And that's going to be what the voters have to decide

Speaker 1: 03:47 And who is opposed to giving the ride, share companies and their allies, this exemption and employment status.

Speaker 2: 03:53 I, the number one, uh, group of opponents are an organized labor. Uh, labor unions fought strongly against any kind of a special deal for these app based companies. When this issue was in front of the legislature last year in part organized labor has wanted to have the ability to unionize these drivers. And, uh, there were some negotiations that were struck with some labor unions and some in the, in the ride sharing company world, uh, in 2019, but those fizzled out, nothing ever came of that. And again, their point is I kind of alluded to a moment ago is that these drivers would almost certainly be considered employees of these companies. If prop 22 fails wages would be higher, their healthcare access would be greater. And their protections for things like workers' comp, uh, would be far beyond what a prop 22 would offer these drivers. And so that's really, the question is, uh, what uh, voters want to do here in terms of what these drivers get and, uh, where they think the marketplace and the industry should go from here.

Speaker 1: 04:57 And there's a remarkable amount of money that these folks supporting prop 22, and I'm trying to get it past our spending. How much are we talking about?

Speaker 2: 05:04 Yeah, remarkable might be an understatement. You know, I mean, ginormous a humongous, I mean, we were talking, uh, the most expensive ballot measure campaign so far in California history at this point, a little above $200 million. The vast majority of that spent by the companies, uh, by the app based companies and only a handful there. Um, but this is a very expensive campaign. Everyone who is hearing our conversation now certainly has seen the television ads or the mailers or anywhere else. I mean, it has been a fierce campaign that the app based companies have waged and they've had the money to do it.

Speaker 1: 05:40 And how does that compare with what the money put up by those opposed to prop 22 and who are they?

Speaker 2: 05:47 It's a fraction again, it's organized labor and groups that would normally align in democratic politics. They are somewhere in the magnitude of $16 million of that amount. So, I mean, they are being vastly outspent, uh, that doesn't always mean that someone's going to win or someone's going to lose, but certainly, uh, what the voters are hearing all the time is the yes. On 22 side, they are starting to hear the no on 22 side, I've seen a few ads and a little bit on that, but, uh, this is not going to be, uh, an even fight in the campaign money raised.

Speaker 1: 06:19 It's the money. There's been some campaign tactics by the backers of prop 22 and criticized by the likes of Senator Bernie Sanders, as I said in the intro, what's that all about?

Speaker 2: 06:29 Uh, yeah. Th these are tactics that, um, while they are not unfamiliar in California politics, they have certainly been used in, um, very new ways by the companies by basically the campaign financed again by Uber and Lyft and door dash and the rest of them, uh, California voters have seen these in their mailboxes a lot. They're called slate mailers. They're probably the oldest form of communication in California. They look like they are an endorsement card, you know, a piece of cardboard that says, uh, Californians for sunshine, recommend a yes, vote on the following things. Those are paid advertisements, and they are run by political consultants who have the campaigns pay to have a spot on that so-called slate. And in this case, you've had some that are, uh, have been advertised as democratic voter guides or progressive voter guides that say vote for Biden and vote.

Speaker 2: 07:24 Yes. On 22, except that Bernie Sanders and his name was cited on one of these slate mailers, Bernie Sanders is adamantly opposed to prop 22 and has said it on Twitter. Uh, the California democratic party is formally opposed to prop 22. Um, is this, um, is this misleading? Is it unclear? It's definitely unclear and it's definitely not, uh, clear who's backing them. Uh, but slate mailers have been used a lot. Um, again, these companies have so much money that they are really disrupting the political marketplace some ways in the way that they've disrupted the transportation marketplace.

Speaker 1: 07:58 The result is certainly one to watch as voting wraps up on November 3rd. I've been speaking with John Myers Sacramento Bureau chief for the Los Angeles times. John, thanks very much. You're welcome. It's a San Diego neighborhood showing its age not much has changed in the midway district since the 1970s and its future is up in the air in more ways than one. If voters give the green light on measure, E a 30 foot height restriction will be lifted and a big make-over can move forward. The outcome might serve as a playbook for our city in the decades to come. When climate change forces us to rethink how San Diego looks and lives. That's what McKinsey Albert voice of San Diego is. Environment reporter is exploring this week. Mackenzie, welcome to the round table. Thank you so much. Glad to be here. Well, measure is a straightforward ask of voters and we've covered it on KPBS ahead of the election, but remind us why the city needs voter approval. And can't just act on its own.

Speaker 2: 08:52 Well, letter's got the coastal height limit passed on a

Speaker 3: 08:56 Wide ballot and built into the San Diego law back in 1972, as you mentioned, and therefore only the voters can undo or make changes to it through another city-wide vote. And I just wanted to note, it's not the only time San Diego one's tried to make changes to the coastal height limit law. Um, voters made an exception for SeaWorld in 1998. Um, so it could build its rollercoasters

Speaker 1: 09:18 And that's turned out pretty well, except SeaWorld is closed right now, unfortunately, due to the, due to the pandemic, a whole different story indeed. Now, to be clear, only a simple majority is needed with measure E right, this isn't one of those two thirds requirements that have stalled other big projects.

Speaker 3: 09:33 That's right. 50% of voters, plus just one vote can tip the scale here.

Speaker 1: 09:38 Now the midway district could prove to be a case study in how we repurpose long established neighborhoods and more will be on the way as the consequences of climate change become apparent. Why did you want to expand the scope of the major East story to one that dovetails with our local climate change plan,

Speaker 3: 09:54 All stories that deal with city or land use planning have a climate change angle. I started out writing about the fact that midway district sits in a low floodplain, which makes it extra prone to future sea level rise. And so I knew there was research out there too, about how heat waves affect people living in the coastal inland or desert regions differently. So it seemed like an obvious question to tackle and the local climate change plan is a five-year plan. That's about to be updated again, and we'll see how the city decides to incorporate what science tells us will happen in just a few decades, um, into their longer range planning.

Speaker 1: 10:30 And, uh, it's interesting. You mentioned that because the project has been course in the news for several years, the expansion of the, of the downtown convention center right there on the waterfront has, uh, an EIR that says the midway through the length of the expected life of that building. It's going to be partly underwater. So it affects all sorts of projects around town, such as, uh, the big midway district

Speaker 3: 10:53 That's right. Sea level rise is a big deal here in San Diego.

Speaker 1: 10:56 Many of us think that climate change and its consequences are, are in economic terms, but part of your story looks at public health. The hotter it gets, the more people are at risk, how to hospitalizations by zip code, bear that out.

Speaker 3: 11:10 It's very location-based hospitalizations for heat-related illnesses are generally worse. If you live in Eastern San Diego, zip codes are basically further from the coast. You go, the hotter it gets. These are results that are reported from a study that's co-authored by a us researcher. And he looked at how many people were hospitalized during a hundred days of heat wave in San Diego County, between Oh four and 2013 and Southeastern San Diego and big swaths of Northeastern parts of the County like Vista and Escondido, Henry rates of 45 to a hundred hospitalizations. Whereas the coastal areas were generally lower, like nine to 33 hospitalizations in that same date range.

Speaker 1: 11:51 And so that kind of comes back to this midway district project, because if it gets hotter in the decades ahead, there's going to be a higher need for housing and cooler areas near the coast and thus denser neighborhoods to meet that demand. Right?

Speaker 3: 12:02 Yeah. That's one theory. Um, on the flip side, there's another study that noted people living along the cooler coast are less used to, or acclimated to the hotter weather. Um, and they also don't have air conditioning in their homes traditionally because you don't really need it for Oceanside living. And that's going to change too. As climate change will bring hotter and more humid nights to the coastal regions of San Diego. So there's an argument to be made that people living along the coast might also be at risk of heat related illnesses in the future. But generally speaking, those living along the coast are wealthier and can afford to buy an AC unit and folks living inland, maybe don't have the means to do so.

Speaker 1: 12:40 Now, if a measure passes, there might be legal challenges. What's the argument from opponents who are part of a group known as save our access.

Speaker 3: 12:48 Yeah. Save our access is aligned with the originators of the 1972 height limit. Actually, if you refer to your ballot, uh, explanation book, they're worried about removing the height limit because they think developers are going to swoop in and build a quote, Hong Kong style towers, which block views of the ocean and bring too many people to the coast. They say, which could cause parking, headaches and, uh, pollution, et cetera. And they filed a lawsuit to block the measure, even if it's approved by voters. Right.

Speaker 1: 13:16 And what they're saying, it's a slippery slope because there's not a lot of views from the ocean they're in the midway district. I mean, it's closer to the coast, but it's not

Speaker 3: 13:25 Right. And that's the midway district. The people who support removing the height limit say, you know, we don't have ocean views. So that argument doesn't really apply to us

Speaker 1: 13:34 In Hong Kong type a skyscrapers. I mean, that sounds like hyperbole.

Speaker 3: 13:39 Yeah. The other thing that the supporters of the removing the height limit say is the, um, the density that they're planning for. Wouldn't go above, I think, eight stories. So they're not even planning to build towers in that area, according to their community plan.

Speaker 1: 13:54 So we'll see how all that plays out and nobody would be surprised. We saw lawsuits should this thing pass. Now, as you reported, inequity is also at play here. Your story mentioned San Diego's red lining laws from the 1930s, that limited coastal property ownership to whites only. How do those gaps in race and class persist when it comes to how decisions are made about coastal?

Speaker 3: 14:14 Yeah, we still very much live in the shadow of those racist policies. Um, if you look at census data showing where San Diegans live by race, it's clear that white populations dominate the coastline as they were guaranteed prime coastal real estate back then while nonwhites were pushed further inland. And, um, those trends remain today. And it's a large reason why climate change will be worse for non-whites if changes aren't made in urban planning and climate change adaptation.

Speaker 1: 14:40 Yeah. It's amazing how you set something in motion and decades later. It's still kind of the way it is.

Speaker 3: 14:45 Yeah. And I wrote about a little bit about the, uh, beach access as well during the pandemic when beaches closed. Um, it's very clear that beach access for nonwhites is much more difficult as they rely on public transit, which takes a little while here in San Diego. As you may know

Speaker 1: 15:01 Now, finally, any thought on how this might go as there been any polling or any gauge on what voters think about measure E

Speaker 3: 15:08 New to town. So this is my first under election in San Diego. I'm not really sure which way this will go. Um, I've seen signs pop up all over town on both sides of the argument. What really counts is if voters really understand this issue, I think, and I've asked some of my own friends who are from San Diego. I asked them simply, if they'd like to remove a law that prohibits building higher than three stories along the coast. And initially they all say no, but when we talk about climate change, other implications, their answer grows more complicated. So obviously there's a lot to this issue than just what one side may say.

Speaker 1: 15:43 Only I had that same conversation with my wife. And that was her initial reaction. Exactly what you just described. So just wonder how deeply voters will go into this and how good each side is or how much money they have to get the word out on, uh, on, you know, some of the more nuanced aspects of their various positions, that's politics, that's politics. Absolutely. Well, welcome to town. And I've been speaking with Mackenzie Elmer environment reporter for the voice of San Diego. Thanks a lot, Mackenzie. Thank you very much. Good talking to you. The San Diego County board of supervisors doesn't get the attention of its counterparts at nearby city hall, but the COVID-19 pandemic made some of its members. Household names, supervisors have played a critical role in the decisions made and messages sent during the pandemic and in less than two weeks, we'll see which direction incoming supervisors might take us voice of San Diego's. Jesse Marks is following the three seats up for grabs. He's here to talk about what's at stake. Hi Jesse. Hey Mark. Good. Thank you. Uh, the Republicans have controlled this board forever, despite San Diego. Now being a blue County, that's finally changing now with term limits, remind us which districts are up for a vote this year and how term limits are forcing two current supervisors out.

Speaker 4: 16:57 Yeah, so you've got five seats on the board of supervisors and thanks to a ballot measure that was approved about a decade ago. The last of the supervisors who were first elected in the 1990s are about to step down marks. So as you said a second ago, for, for a really long time, now, at least a generation, the board has been dominated by some of the same faces. So it's very hard to ask an incumbent in general, but it's been especially hard within San Diego County itself. So what you got on the ballot this year is district one, which is primarily situated in the South Bay. That's been represented by Greg Cox for more than two decades. You've got district two, which is primarily situated in East County and similar situation there. You've had Diane, Jacob. Who's also a Republican who served for a couple of decades. And then you've also got district three, which is an interesting one. It's a traditionally conservative seat, but it's become something of a swing in, in recent years. A Democrat actually won election to that seat in 2012, but flamed out in scandal, uh, which gave Kristen gas bar, who's a Republican and who currently represents that seat a chance to take it in 2016. And so she's competing this time around to keep it

Speaker 1: 18:06 Right. And that's an interesting race. And of course she's been associated with president Trump and we'll see how that plays in that district. Now, any indication which race might be the closest from polling or other indications?

Speaker 4: 18:17 That's a good question. I haven't seen much polling on this race, at least independent polling on this race. I know that we've conducted some of our own. I just don't have the results in my possession yet, but I would say if you want to use institutional support and fundraising as a guide, I think district one is going to be a fairly close one in the South Bay. You've got two Democrats down there who are competing against one another district. Who's also going to be really interesting, but you've got Steve Voss. Who's the mayor of Poway who has most of the support around the County from sitting politicians. The really interesting one to watch again, though, is going to be district three. That's the one I'm paying the most attention to because that, that the outcome of that race is going to determine the partisan makeup of the board.

Speaker 1: 18:57 And these are officially nonpartisan positions, but it's known where these candidates do fall on the political spectrum. Why is the unofficial partisan makeup important when it comes to the board of supervisors?

Speaker 4: 19:08 So that's true. It is a nonpartisan board officially, but the candidates, when they run for office, they run within their party systems. So they seek an endorsement from their party. They seek money from their party in order to support them and get them there. But more generally I think party affiliation is a useful guide for understanding how the candidates think and what they prioritize. And even more importantly, who they're aligned with, if you're a Democrat in this County, for instance, you're probably not going to have a very good chance of getting elected without the support of someone like FCIU, which is the labor union that represents many of the County employees. I think though, just from a general perspective, there is a lot of overlap between Democrats and Republicans at the County level. And I think the voting records over the years have reflected that a lot of times they vote in unison. It's really it just on these controversial issues where you see disagreements and those are worth dwelling into, and those are worth talking about because that's where the conflict is. And that's where, that's where you see the effects of the party system play out most clearly,

Speaker 1: 20:11 Kristin gas, power win reelection. Um, what happens then are we likely to see the board handle the COVID 19 recovery any differently?

Speaker 4: 20:21 That's a really good question. I think things are moving very fast and they seem to change almost daily. So it's impossible to say for sure, what will happen a couple of months from now, but the point that I tried to make in the pair of pieces that I wrote on this subject was that you've seen Republicans starting to push back harder against the state of California, which has the primary authority over the pandemic to basically set the ground rules for when businesses can open. And when can't. And so you've heard from Republicans on the campaign trail quite a lot over the last few weeks and months about retaining more local control over the pandemic. It's a fairly ambiguous thing to say. It's not always clear what that means in practice, but I would point out that the County was on the verge of suing the state last month, but decided to back off.

Speaker 4: 21:07 So it's entirely possible that a new GOP board will come in, uh, with a different conclusion, say three months from now on what the proper role of the County and the state should be. It's also entirely possible that the board might start releasing more COVID-19 data. I know both the Republicans who are running for office in district two Mark, they both said that they think the County should be more transparent about where outbreaks are occurring, which is really interesting because at the moment we don't actually know. And so if the Republicans get together and decide that there should be more, uh, COVID data, that'll be particularly interesting and also useful for reporters

Speaker 1: 21:39 And turned it around a little bit at the Democrat Terra, Lawson reamer wins in district three. How might that shift the board's priorities

Speaker 4: 21:46 Reamer? Reamer's pretty interesting because she's an economist by training with a PhD. So she, she thinks about trade-offs and incentives in a very academic way. She's been particularly clearest, however that the County needs to take environmental ism more seriously. And one of the most immediate ways to do that she's argued is by writing a new climate action plan that sets a higher standard than the County was previously willing to go. The county's climate action plan has actually been thrown out by the courts. And so they need to sit down to rewrite it specifically. She's talked about the creation of a carbon mitigation bank, which would help fund the preserve of more open space. She's very skeptical of back country developments, which contribute to traffic and pollution and have been harmful to what is really one of the most bio-diverse regions in the world. I know that she's called development in the back country, particularly the housing units that we've seen built in areas that traditionally aren't reserved for housing, she's called that practice fiscally irresponsible. Uh, and she said that, um, home, home construction, essentially in those parts of the County are being subsidized by taxpayers. And so she's called this a wealth transfer from the people of San Diego to developers that's language we've never heard before. Um, but more broadly speaking, she's aligned herself with her fellow Republicans in a couple of other ways, they've pushed back against the notion that the Sheriff's department should prioritize more of its healthcare services in jails. And they've also expressed support for legalizing cannabis sales and unincorporated areas.

Speaker 1: 23:16 You've kind of answered my next question that COVID-19 and its economic and public health effects are all consuming. They touch so many policy issues, but what are the biggest challenges facing supervisors behind, beyond the COVID issue? Of course you just touched on climate change and development and sprawl and a lot of these other issues, anything else that comes to mind,

Speaker 4: 23:35 Definitely homelessness as well. Housing. Um, the main question is going to be how, how does the region meet its housing goals without just building more and wildfires zones? That's going to be an ongoing dispute that you see and that's going to be a philosophical dispute. That's going to be interesting. Um, I think policing in general is going to be one of the most important issues going forward. Republicans have said that taking any money away from, from the sheriff at this moment in time is a non-starter for them. But there does seem to be growing support even by partisan support that cops shouldn't do everything. They shouldn't respond to every type of call. And so you're hearing people talk more and more about the need for social workers who can be attached to deputies and actually go out on, on calls is a less intimidating, uh, form of interaction with the public.

Speaker 4: 24:22 And the other thing I'd like to highlight is the fact that there's been growing support for more investments in behavioral health, as well as drug treatment. And you're hearing that from both sides, but it all comes back to this issue of reserves. The County has an incredibly large savings account, which is around $2.4 billion. And so over the last couple of weeks and months, one of the disputes that you've heard from the candidates is over what to do with this giant pot of money that is sitting there. And Republicans have said, look, we want to keep building this up because it's a buffer against the pandemic at this moment. And the cost of recovery is going to be very expensive. And the Democrats on the other hand have said, look, now's actually the time to spend more of that money because government needs to be an engine of economic stimulus.

Speaker 1: 25:03 We wrap up, didn't want to come back to the two departing longtime supervisors, Diane, Jacob, and Greg Cox. Any idea what they might be doing now, what's next for them?

Speaker 4: 25:11 Uh, I can't say for sure. I guess time will tell. Um, I imagine there'll be awarded for their many years of, uh, an office by sitting on some board or foundation. And so I wish them well, but can't say for sure.

Speaker 1: 25:21 Well, so much to follow in the days ahead. I've been speaking with Jesse Marks associate editor for voice of San Diego. Thanks Jesse. Thanks Mark. That wraps up another edition of the round table. I'd like to thank my guests, John Myers of the Los Angeles times and McKinsey, Elmer, and Jesse Marks a voice of San Diego just over a week left as voting wraps up on Tuesday, November 3rd, for a comprehensive look at all the candidates and ballot issues. Check out the KPB as voters guide at KPBS dot O R G I'm Mark Sauer. Thanks for listening and join us again next week on the round table. [inaudible].

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Mark Sauer hosts KPBS Roundtable, a lively discussion of the week's top stories. Local journalists join Sauer to provide insight into how these stories affect residents of the San Diego region.