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California Primary Day!

by Brent Mead / /

Today, Californians head to the polls to decide the fate of hundreds of state and local ballot measures. In order to help voters make sense of what is on the ballot, NTU created the 2012 California Primary Ballot Guide. We tracked both statewide measures and over 100 local measures. While many of these initiatives are worthy of coverage, such as Prop 28’s underhanded attempt to neuter the state’s term limits, Proposition 29 stands out both as a forerunner of Governor Brown’s multi-billion dollar tax hikes on the ballot this fall and a reminder that California has never met a spending regime it doesn’t like.

Proposition 29 would impose a tax increase of nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars on overburdened citizens, despite California’s struggling economy and 11 percent unemployment. The measure would dramatically raise levies on cigarettes while creating a new commission to dole out the money in the form of subsidies for cancer research. Proposition 29 is opposed not just by taxpayer advocates, like the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, but by local businesses, law enforcement organizations, and the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times.

As LA Times columnist Michael Hiltzek wrote;

In many respects Proposition 29 is a clone of 2004's Proposition 71, which created the state's stem cell program and retired the trophy for doing the wrong thing in the wrong way for what sounds like the right reasons. Proposition 71, you may recall, was sold to a gullible public via candy-coated images of Christopher Reeve walking again and Michael J. Fox cured of Parkinson's. The implication was that these miracles would happen if voters approved a $3-billion bond issue for stem cell research. Who could be against that?

As it turned out, the stem cell measure created an unwieldy bureaucracy and etched conflicts of interest into the state Constitution. By last count about 85% of the $1.3 billion in grants handed out by the program, or some $1.1 billion, has gone to institutions with representatives on the stem cell board. The program is virtually immune to oversight by the Legislature or other elected officials. For these reasons and others, it has grappled with only mixed success with changes in stem cell science and politics that have called its original rationale into question.

Likewise, Proposition 29 permits private-sector members receiving taxpayer funding through the initiative to serve on the commission that decides how its funds spent. These circular arrangements open the door to serious conflicts of interest. Additionally, California just posted a revised deficit of $16 billion for the current year. NTU would oppose a tax and spending scheme like Proposition 29 even in the best of times, but given the utter disaster that is California’s budget this is simply an exorbitantly expensive program that will add to the budget woes, not help solve them.

Certainly cancer research is a laudable public policy goal; however, the National Institutes of Health spend $5.4 billion annually on cancer research. Other federal agencies, such as the Department of Defense, operate cancer research programs as well. California should address its own spending and budget issues before assuming responsibilities already covered by federal programs.

Finally, despite all the structurally flaws identified by both opponents and non-aligned groups, if passed, Prop 29 cannot be amended until 2027. California would be stuck with the system, warts and all, for 15 years. When we are talking about a half a billion dollar a year program this is simply unacceptable. Voters should have the ability to amend and perfect the program, either through the ballot box or their elected representatives.

California should be considering structural changes to the state budget to bring about spending reform and government belt-tightening, not standing up a new bloated bureaucracy.