Such a Deal

Californians have a history of buying ballot measures that are deceptively written and advertised

Like doughnuts or deodorant, politics is about selling. And what sells a product isn’t so much what the product does, but what the buyer thinks it does. Take Proposition 56. It doesn’t really matter if it actually reforms the budget, because as long as people think they are getting budget reform, they will vote for it.

Special interest groups and politicians have learned the trick is to get people to pay attention – but not too much attention. If you’re at the supermarket perusing deodorant options, industry executives don’t expect you to ponder the active ingredients in each; they figure you’ll simply reach for the one with the commercial that made you feel robust and athletic. Likewise, those selling propositions don’t want you to think too much, they just want you to vote for the one that feels right.

The big problem for California arises after voters have cast their ballots. If you’re duped into buying deodorant that doesn’t work, you can simply buy a different brand next time. But once voters pass a proposition, the whole state is stuck with it.

Thankfully, political peddlers aren’t particularly creative. Over the years they’ve stayed loyal to a few tricks, and a perceptive voter can learn to spot the shady sales tactics.

Beware of propositions with impressive names

Proposition 111’s alias was too enticing for voters to pass up in 1990. After all, even the most skeptical among us might have rolled the dice on a tempting title like the “Traffic Congestion Relief and Spending Limitation Act.”

Perhaps voters dreamed that one grand proposition could unlock the secrets to rescuing California from slow moving streets and fast spending politicians. Sadly, the key features were hardly revolutionary. To relieve traffic congestion, the proposition would fund transportation projects by raising gas taxes. To “limit spending,” it would loosen spending restrictions enacted by the 1979 Gann Spending Limit. How would loose spending restrictions limit spending? Couldn’t tell you. But the “Traffic Congestion and Spending Limitation Act” sure sounds promising.

Moreover, Prop. 111 had big-name backers, including both senators and prominent tax foe Gov. George Deukmejian. The governor’s support likely comforted some of those who would usually oppose measures raising taxes. Many politicians also saw great potential for congestion relief, and one nearly giddy assemblyman declared that our state may very well “lead the nation” in “innovative transportation strategies.”

No doubt the assemblyman’s enthusiasm subsided long ago, because, 14 years later, California leads the nation, not in innovation, but in traffic congestion.

However, California is fastest at something – spending. During the past five years, California’s spending increased at a rate that topped the nation.

And we did it to ourselves by voluntarily voting for a loosened spending limit.

Californians were sold the impressive sounding “Traffic Congestion Relief and Spending Act” and its promise to reduce our commutes and limit government spending. Voters got just the opposite – more congestion and more spending.

Look out for unintended consequences

It’s not enough to examine all the good a proposition’s supporters say it will do; voters must look closely for ugly, unintended consequences that may emerge. When a politician supports general ideas that already enjoy popular support, even a second-rater can sound like a visionary. For example, most people support “more jobs,” but disagreements arise when people discuss the best way to achieve this shared goal.

Enter 1972’s Proposition 20. It appealed to voters with a popular idea – preserving California’s coastline. However, it’s unlikely that those who supported a pristine coastline supported all the unintended consequences, draconian land-use regulations and soaring housing prices that came with it.

Prop. 20 led to the Coastal Protection Act of 1976 and a permanent Coastal Commission to regulate development. Communities began to lose the ability to tailor development to their particular needs. Ultimately, the commission undercut local stewardship and put development decisions into the hands of an unelected, statewide body.

So much unchecked power proved an invitation to corruption. In 1987, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the Coastal Commission described its demands for land in exchange for permits as extortion. In 1992, a former coastal commissioner was convicted for soliciting bribes in exchange for building permits. More recently, Gov. Davis’ re-election campaign received over $8 million from donors intent on receiving permits from the commission.

The commission’s ardent opposition to development has no doubt pleased some, but it also helped to codify NIMBYism into law. And with all the attention paid to preservation, one thing Prop. 20 hasn’t helped preserve is affordable housing. Prop. 20, the Coastal Commission and other aggressive zoning practices squeezed the state’s housing supply and inflated prices. The California Association of Realtors notes that now less than a quarter of families can afford the median-priced home in our community. Ironically, strict land use regulations near the coast have helped push development to the suburbs, thus feeding sprawl, the conservationist’s archenemy.

Prop. 20 sold voters on coastal protection; they got a dubious unelected commission, higher home prices, a shift away from local stewardship and questionable environmental results to boot.

Read the fine print

In 2002, Proposition 42 was an easy sell. Again, the bureaucrats went with traffic and congestion in the title, this time it was the “Traffic Congestion Improvement Act,” which would not raise taxes, but simply ensure that sales taxes on gasoline would fund transportation projects. That sounds like a no-brainer, so nearly 70 percent of voters gave it the nod, and waited for congestion to improve. They are still waiting.

Of course, congestion didn’t improve. Then-Gov. Gray Davis backed away from the law he once supported, choosing to use Prop. 42 funds to help bail out the state’s general fund. Now Gov. Schwarzenegger plans to do the same.

How can they do that?

Had voters read the fine print, we would have known that, in times of fiscal crisis, the governor and Legislature can simply choose to suspend the law. Perhaps voters were on the lookout for a craftier scam, and simply got caught off-guard by the simplicity of Prop. 42’s slipperiness.

After all, proponents touted Prop. 42’s congestion improvement and news reports, proposition synopses and sound bites used words like “earmark” and “permanent” to convey the idea that – finally – politicians would not be able to treat gas taxes as a general-purpose slush fund.

However, to assume that a 30-second TV ad will spell out the most important provisions in big letters is to give political peddlers more credit than they deserve.

Shady sales jobs and unfulfilled promises are part of today’s reality in politics.

Californians must walk into voting booths on March 2 like they would walk onto a used car lot. Expect deception, don’t listen to fast talk and watch your wallet.

Ted Balaker is the Jacob’s Fellow at Reason Foundation.