Here is a frustrating fact about ballot measure campaigns: one side of the question has to win.
Prop 29 illustrates the problem. Both sides of the campaign deserve to lose, but one side will win. Let's look at it from both sides of 29:
The Yes on 29 campaign is second-to-none in its moral fervor. If only it had been so careful and thoughtful when it comes to the budget -- and the Californians who depend on it. As your blogger described here previously, Yes on 29 takes a perfectly good tax policy -- taxing cigarettes, which would produce more money the state needs and reduce the number of smokers, thus literally saving lives -- and pairs it with the kind of brain-dead budget policy that has made this state such an ungovernable mess.
The initiatives ties up cigarette tax money in a separate fund for cancer research, and a host of priorities that are detailed in the initiative. That's money that can't be used for general fund purposes. And it's the general fund that's hurting right now. Instead, this initiative takes potential tax money off the table that could be used to shore up decimated health and human services programs, and puts it into a gold-plated new program for cancer.
In so doing, Prop 29 actually hurts the two causes -- public health and research -- that it wants to help. The two pieces of the budget that depend most on the general fund are human services/health and higher education. Of course, the reasons for doing it this way are themselves political; an initiative that threw money into the general fund could be easily attacked as giving more money to politicians. But that's precisely what California needs to do more of: give lawmakers more flexiblity to balance budgets and set priorities. Campaigns like this not only reduce flexibility--but their messaging makes it harder to fix the system. That's why the Yes on 29 side, even though it's fighting for a very good cause (and a good tax policy), deserves to lose.
But the No side deserves to lose too. It's backed by tobacco companies -- an interest group that has a well-earned reputation for deception, death and other evils.
The No campaign has been right in one of its central arguments -- the inflexibility and governance problems with how the money has been spent. But some of its other arguments are wrong or misleading.
One such argument is that the money will be spent outside of California. That seems highly unlikely, given that the people funding this are interests who would stand to gain from money being in spent in California. Another problematic argument is the one about a big government bureaucracy being created by the measure; from what I can tell, the bureaucracy wouldn't be that large.
And while it's politically incorrect to mention it, the real problem with previous initiatives like this -- ballot box budgeting measures for public health issues -- has been a lack of bureaucracy. Most notably, the initiative that establshed the stem cell agency tried to counter attacks on bureaucracy by including limits on the agency. Those very limits have made it harder for the agency to build an institution that can effectively do audits and conduct oversight. If you're going to spend money, you need to build some bureaucracy to make sure you do it well.
So what's good about Prop 29? The measure -- and the campaigns both for and against it -- show how cynical and emotional our debates about ballot initiatives are. Californians needs to come up with ways to build deliberative processes around initiatives so that details and consequences of measures are better understood by the public.
Or else we'll keep having campaigns in which both sides deserve to lose.
University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).