The schizophrenic Calif. voter

The voters are a strange lot, and sometimes go in two directions in the same election


California has a very active voter’s initiative process, courtesy of Governor Hiram Johnson and the Progressive Movement of the early 20th century. It has given the formerly great state of California an 800-page constitution.

It has given the state some unquestionably good things, like Prop 13, which has kept homeowners from being taxed out of their houses (and has also frozen property taxes on commercial property).

It has also given us the three strikes law, which has done much for public safety in the state. The state constitution also reinstated the death penalty in California several decades ago.

That being said, the voters are a strange lot, and sometimes go in two directions in the same election.
   
There were two large tax proposals on the ballot Nov. 6, Prop 30 and Prop 38. Prop 38 was backed by Molly Munger, an immensely rich civil rights lawyer. It would have raised virtually all California income taxes for several years and sent virtually all of that money to K-12 schools. It was shot down by a huge margin, almost three to one.

The other was Prop 30, pushed by Jerry Brown and the state legislature. They liked it so much they changed the rules to move Prop 30 to the top of the ballot list, where it is generally believed ballot propositions have a better chance of passing. It did in fact pass. 

The current budget, approved four months ago, assumed this proposition would pass and had about $6 billion in trigger cuts built into it, mostly for schools, if it did not. Had this not passed, it would have chopped three weeks out of the already meager school year in California. It was sort of a "pass this proposition or we kill the schools" deal. It worked.

In addition, the funding for realignment, the shift of so-called low level offenders from state custody and supervision to local custody and supervision, was built into this proposal. It passed by a nose.  Much of the opposition to Prop 30 came from those who believe the legislature will simply use it as new, “free” money, and spend it frivolously as has often been the case before.

Voters also had the opportunity to ashcan the death penalty in California via Prop 34. This proposition very skillfully targeted a combination of anti-death penalty types, prisoner rights groups and fiscal conservatives by claiming the death penalty system costs too much for the number of people it actually kills. I half expected it to pass. It did not, by about 6 percent. 

However, voters did change the three strikes law significantly. As originally written, the third strike could be any felony and could be enacted after any two serious felonies. This was attacked successfully as being unfair and unduly costly. Prop 36 passed by more than two to one.

I strongly suspect many voters did not realize this allows many convicted third-strikers to appeal their third strike and possibly get out of prison, on the basis that their third strike no longer passes the serious-violent test. Those legal claims will start pretty much immediately.

The voters, as I said, are something schizophrenic. They want to have a death penalty, but the fact that we don't use it does not seem to bother most people. There are now more than 700 people on death row in California. The most common cause of death of condemned prisoners is old age, followed closely by suicide. 

The voters have spoken. It would, however, be nice if it was possible to figure out conclusively what they are actually saying.

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