California's Ballot Initiatives: A Top Ten List Too Boring for Letterman or Buzzfeed


No, it won't be this easy. Sorry.

So what's on the ballot for California residents come November? Lots of stuff! Lots of awkwardly written stuff designed to look and sound as reasonable as possible but hiding all sorts of little secret incentives and surprises! So for Californians, here's a guide to what every commercial you will be watching in October that isn't about President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will be about:

Who Doesn't Love Reading About Tax Initiatives?

Political insiders are watching the battles between Prop. 30 and Prop. 38, "competing" tax measures (scare quotes because both could pass and both could fail). Proposition 30 is Jerry Brown's well-publicized baby, temporarily (should I have used scare quotes there, too?) raising sales taxes and income taxes over $250,000 to make up the billions of education funding that will be cut if Prop. 30 isn't passed.

Proposition 38, by California civil rights lawyer Molly Munger, would raise income taxes on anybody earning more than $7,300 a year for 12 years. The actual rate slides based on income, starting at .4 percent and maxing out at 2.2 percent for those earning more than $2.5 million to pay for education and reduce the state's debt.

Brown supporters have started a committee to oppose Munger's plan, called Stop the Middle Class Tax Hike—No on Prop. 38, which is funny because Prop. 30 has a sales tax increase. According to The Sacramento Bee, Brown's proposition is currently polling better than Munger's, likely because of the difference in who is affected by the income tax increases.

Getting much less attention is Proposition 39, the "Clean Energy Jobs Act" (scare quotes because … well, you can figure it out). The bill would change how companies in California who have presences in other states calculate their tax burdens. The changes would benefit companies who are based primarily in California but do business in other states, but would penalize businesses based outside California that do business within the state. Its proponents seem to think the initiative would encourage more businesses to locate within the state rather than encourage more businesses to just stop doing business with California altogether.

The bill gets its name because it would also dedicate half a billion dollars from the money the tax change raises to fund green energy projects and would create a state bureaucracy to oversee the distribution of the money. The promise of yet more bureaucracy is what killed the proposed cigarette tax increase in June (though there's now a recount going on), so we'll see how that goes.

Getting Untough on Crime, Except for Sex Offenders, Of Course

Death to the death chamber!

Proposition 34 would eliminate the death penalty in California, replacing death sentences with life in prison without parole. Executions were suspended in California in 2006 by a judge who determined the lethal injection execution method could result in cruel and unusual punishment during the process (not due to the result, mind you).  The proposition also creates a $100 million bribe to not fight this fund for law enforcement agencies to help solve more homicide and rape cases.

Proposition 36 would change the state's three-strikes law so that a life sentence would only be handed down if the third felony is serious or violent. It also authorizes the resentencing of anybody currently serving a life sentence under the law if their third strike falls under these categories.  The state's independent analysis indicates the change could save the state more than $100 million a year in the long term but would temporarily increase costs to counties and cities in the short term for monitoring the influx of new releases.

Proposition 35 increases human-trafficking penalties and requires those convicted to register as sex offenders. The proposition also requires convicted sex offenders to provide information to police about all of their online identities and e-mail addresses, which is an almost comically unenforceable demand. It's a feel-good regulation that won't actually make anybody safer.

And All the Rest …

Proposition 31 creates a two-year budget cycle and would prohibit expenditures by the legislature of $25 million or more unless sources for the money could be identified. It would also allow the governor to cut the budget during fiscal emergencies if the legislature fails to act. The group California Forward is behind the initiative. They supported both the 2010 amendment that eliminates the 2/3 vote requirement to raise taxes and the new "top two" primary system the pretty much eliminates third parties (and sometimes second parties) from the November ballots.

I've already written about Proposition 32, which will prohibit the use of payroll deductions for political purposes. It would technically apply to both public and private employers, but of course it really only affects union employees. Public sector unions are expected to provide at least $28 million trying to defeat the bill. Democratic former Senate leader Gloria Romero, who is also a big supporter of charter schools (and therefore has tangled with teachers' unions before) endorsed the proposition this week.

Proposition 33 is an auto-insurance industry bill offering a benefit in the hopes of disguising a penalty. It would allow drivers to change insurers but keep discounts for having continuous coverage for at least five years. But those whose auto insurance had lapsed would see surcharges. Yes, this is something to be voted on rather than letting market forces do their job. A similar initiative failed in 2010, but the surcharge wording has been changed so that it no longer applies to military or to those who have been unemployed for 18 months.

A perfectly rational approach to discussing genetically-modified foods, wouldn't you say?

Proposition 37 mandates the labeling of genetically modified foods. Well, certain genetically modified foods. It is full of all sorts of exemptions like food that is "certified organic," food from animals that are injected with stuff, food served in restaurants, and of course, alcoholic beverages. (Really, it's clear at this point that the fastest way to legalize marijuana in the U.S. would be for MillerCoors to start growing hemp.) The mandate is pointless fearmongering but it's California, so it will be a surprise if it doesn't pass.

And finally, Proposition 40 is technically the eleventh proposition, but it doesn't really count. It would put the results of state Senate redistricting (which, despite the creation of an allegedly independent citizens commission, seems to favor Democrats) to a public vote. However, the original proponents in the state's Republican Party have abandoned the measure following a court ruling that put the new boundaries into place for the November election. It will nevertheless appear on the ballot with its former proponents encouraging voters to reject it.