California's Crucial Ballot Measures That Aren't About Pot

The national media and pollsters are obsessing about California's initiative to legalize recreational marijuana use. But, it would be a shame to ignore other ballot measures in California that might very well end up having more tangible significance.
by | September 23, 2010

Here's how the Associated Press began their summary of the year's ballot measures earlier this month:

No single election contest this fall combines the buzz and history-making potential of California's Proposition 19, which would make the state the first to legalize recreational use of marijuana.

It's the most eye-catching of roughly 150 ballot measures that voters in 35 states will be considering on Nov. 2 — encompassing such volatile topics as abortion, affirmative action, health care and liquor sales.

When I read that, I cringed. Sure, Prop. 19 comes with a lot of buzz. Another way to say that is it comes with a lot of hype.

Don't get me wrong: Prop. 19 is interesting and important. But, it's tangible effect might end up being limited. Marijuana possession would still be forbidden under federal law. Under the measure, local governments would get to decide whether marijuana could be sold legally in their jurisdictions. Many likely wouldn't allow it.

Yes, it would be symbolically significant for the nation's largest state to vote to allow recreational use of marijuana. Yes, advocates in other states might be inspired to take similar action. Yes, it's possible that over time the federal government would take a permissive stance on recreational marijuana in the same way that the Obama administration has on medical marijuana. But, I still think that Prop. 19 is only the year's fifth most important ballot measure -- in California. Here are four other measures in the state that deserve more media attention and more polling than they're currently getting.

The measures: Prop. 20 and Prop. 27.

What they'd do: In 2008, Californians approved an initiative, Prop. 11, that created a new independent commission to conduct redistricting of state legislative districts and Board of Equalization districts. Prop 20 would extend the commission's authority to congressional redistricting. Prop. 27 would eliminate the commission entirely.

Why it's important: If Jerry Brown is elected governor (and his chances are now looking up, after being down, after being up, after being down), Democrats are in line to have complete control of redistricting in California. The party currently holds 34 of the state's 53 U.S. House seats, but probably could squeeze a few more seats out of the state with a partisan gerrymander. Of course, they can only do that if the legislature is in charge of redistricting -- if Prop. 20 fails. It's reasonable to expect that whichever party has control of the House after the November elections will have a narrow majority. If that's the case, Prop. 20 and Prop. 27 could well determine whether Democrats or Republicans start with an edge in the fight for the House in 2012.

More broadly, California's commission will be a closely watched experiment in independent redistricting that could influence reformers in the way that only California can. It could well be a turning point for the movement to remove elected officials from drawing of the nation's political lines. But, that only will happen if voters allow the commission to draw some lines.

By the way, this bit from Ballotpedia is crucial:

Proposition 27 and Proposition 20 each have a so-called "poison pill" provision. This means that if they both receive a majority vote, the proposition that receives the highest majority vote is the law that will go into effect. This means that they could both, technically, be approved, but that only one of them would become law.

The measure: Prop. 23

What it would do: Suspend AB 32, California's landmark global warming bill, until unemployment in the state falls below 5.5%.

Why it's important: Prop. 23 gets my vote for the most important ballot measure of the year. When it passed in 2006, AB 32 was hailed as the most aggressive and important step any state had taken to combat global warming. The law requires that California cut its greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. It's described as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's signature achievement. Regulations under AB 32 are scheduled to being going into effect in 2012.

Since 2006, the national mood may have turned against greenhouse gas regulation. This year, in a shift, many Republican candidates, including Meg Whitman, are expressing uncertainty or skepticism about the science of global warming. Cap-and-trade stalled on Capitol Hill.

In that context, Prop. 23 is a great test of the politics of greenhouse gas regulation. California is rightly regarded as one of the country's most environmentally conscious states. But, at a moment of intense economic anxiety, fears about the measure's potential costs could hold more sway.

If AB 32 is allowed to go into effect, it could be a national model. If voters reject it, that would be strong evidence to lawmakers in Washington and around the country that aggressively combating global warming is politically toxic.

The measure: Prop. 25

What it would do: Allow state budgets in California to pass with a simple majority vote in the legislature, rather than requiring the current two-thirds supermajority.

Why it's important: Generally, the most important thing state governments do is to pass -- or not pass -- the budget. The budget is where critical decisions about education, transportation, health care and corrections are made.

California has a long, colorful history of failing to pass its budget by the constitutionally mandated July 1 deadline. Those delays come with real consequences for school districts, local governments, non-profits and contractors -- everyone that depends on state government. The delays also have contributed to the deep cynicism that most Californians feel regarding the state legislature. A big reason for the delays: the two-thirds requirement.

At the same time, the two-thirds requirement forces legislators to eventually compromise (though critics will say that some of the compromises have been short-sighted). The rule has served as a powerful check on the agenda of the majority party.

If Brown is elected governor, Democrats (who are presumed to have a lock on the legislature) will nominally control the entirety of California state government. But, they won't have functional control unless Prop. 25 passes.

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer
mailbox@governing.com

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