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By Frank Gruber

Oct. 11, 2010 -- I usually vote no on state propositions, even when the purpose is consistent with my liberal politics.

You know all the arguments against propositions, but I’ll repeat them: ballot box governing and budgeting that allows for no flexibility, piecemeal lawmaking, and the general demagoguery that accompanies single-issue campaigns typically bankrolled by whoever will benefit from the new law.

And despite all the rhetoric about direct democracy, propositions are not democratic when it comes to who votes. Wealthier (and whiter) Californians vote in higher percentages than poorer Californians (disproportionately minority), and the electorate for propositions skews against California’s demographics.

Democrats dominate the legislature but not in statewide elections because legislative districts are drawn based on population, not on the number of people who vote. Initiatives benefit the haves who vote and not the have-nots who don’t.

I don’t know if this year’s crop of statewide propositions is particularly dismal, but it is dismal. One could make a good argument to vote no on all of them. (In fact, political analyst Joe Mathews made that argument in an op-ed in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times.)

But in reviewing the propositions, this year I’ve concluded that one can’t look only at how stupidly drawn a measure is, or imagine a better world where such a well-intentioned but flawed law might not even be considered, but sometimes one must look at the overall political context and vote yes even when one is fearful of the consequences of the measure’s passing.

Take Prop. 19, which would legalize marijuana under California law. Legalizing an unlawful drug is a complex matter not suited to a single statute, no matter how well its drafters may try to predict the future. To the credit of the drafters of Prop. 19, it allows, as opposed to most propositions, some amending by the legislature, but even so it may turn out that the basic format of legalization under Prop. 19 will need to be amended, and that would take another vote.

So I should vote against 19. But I’m going to vote yes. We need voters in this country to tell politicians that the “War on Drugs” approach to dealing with drug abuse and addiction has failed. Ideally, Prop. 19 would pass with a huge majority and then be tossed out by the courts for some technicality, in the meantime showing politicians that most people don’t see marijuana as something more dangerous than alcohol. Then maybe they would have the courage to pass sensible laws legalizing and regulating pot.

Another proposition that in a better world wouldn’t exist is Prop. 21, the measure that would assess an $18 car registration fee to fund the state parks, while eliminating day use fees. Historically the state parks have been funded through a sensible mix of general taxes and use fees, but with the continuing budget crisis, there hasn’t been enough money.

In many ways Prop. 21 is typical ballot box budgeting -- taking care of one pothole while leaving all the others unfixed. It also makes a lot of car owners who never get near a state park pay for the parks (to a greater extent than they do now as general taxpayers).

The measure also has the potential to create havoc in Santa Monica, where beach parking will become free for anyone with California plates, disrupting traffic here, without a guarantee that the parking revenues that are used to maintain the beach will be replaced with state funds.

But I’m voting yes. Most of the opposition to Prop. 21 comes from the old anti-tax crowd who have used the initiative process to destroy public investment in California so that measures like Prop. 21 become the last resort for anyone who cares about the public weal. If Prop. 21 passes, it could signal that that era is over.

Similarly, I’m voting yes on Prop. 25, which amends the two-thirds vote requirement for passing budgets. While the measure doesn’t go far enough -- it retains the two-thirds vote for taxes -- and possibly this partial solution will lead to more chaos in Sacramento, it sends the right message, that Californians have had it with gridlock. If it passes, perhaps in two years another measure will pass eliminating the two-thirds votes for taxes, too.

There are still plenty of initiatives to vote no on, beginning with the execrable Prop. 23, a classic attempt by (Texas oil) billionaires to use the initiative process for private gain. Or Prop. 26, which would require more two-thirds votes on attempts to raise money for public purposes.

I am also voting no on Prop. 22, the initiative that would prohibit the state from taking funds from redevelopment districts (and from other sources) to use for the state budget. While it’s because of state raids on local funds that Santa Monica needs to pass local Measure Y, the half-cent local sales tax, much of redevelopment funding is a scam, which the state should have more control over, not less. Prop. 22 is also more ballot box budgeting that will further tie up the legislature.

Lastly, there are the two competing measures on drawing district lines. While I am not voting for Prop. 20, which will take the drawing of congressional districts out of the legislature’s hands, I am not convinced by Prop. 27, which would return all redistricting to the legislature by eliminating the “Citizens Redistricting Commission” that was created when Prop. 11 passed in 2008.

Current research indicates that districting -- gerrymandering -- has less impact on politics than people think, because of the importance of regional demographic patterns. In California there is a broad coastal vs. inland divide between Democrats and Republicans, and redistricting cannot change this.

While ordinarily I oppose “non-political” fixes of political issues like the Redistricting Commission (the essential problem with the “Progressive Era” reforms that led to this mess), now that we have the commission, my instinct is see how it plays out. Prop. 27 also includes some details -- such as requiring districts to be exactly equal in population -- that are unrealistic. So I’ll be voting no on Prop. 27, too.

What a crazy system -- and so un-American -- where you put rationality aside and vote your ideologies.

Frank J. Gruber is the author of Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, available at Hennessey + Ingalls and Angel City books in Santa Monica, at City Image Press, and on


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