By Doug Porter
Dean Cortopassi is a wealthy self-made agribusinessman from Stockton. Charles Munger is a Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and lives in Pasadena. Both have long histories in politics.
Each of them has bought a spot for a pet cause on the general election ballot. And they’d like you to believe their motives are altruistic.
They’re gaming the system, promising they have your interests in mind. Their measures are, in fact, simplistic solutions to complex problems with potential or real consequences not immediately apparent to the casual observer.
Prop 53 – It’s All About the Water
Cortopassi, along with spouse Joan, have ponied up all of the $4.5 million or so in support of Proposition 53. He spent years unsuccessfully fighting the State of California in court over issues related to the state’s vast water delivery system.
Having lost in the courts, he turned to the initiative process. His first attempt in 2014 failed to qualify for the ballot.
What his ballot measure proposes to do is force voters statewide to vote on bond issues relying on revenues paid by users of a project who benefit from that project, not taxpayers in general. These revenue bonds do not depend on the general fund for support.
There’s a $2 billion dollar floor for uses not defined in the law. That’s supposed to be a feature since it leaves the decision-making about what constitutes a project up to the courts. And it avoids any pre-election discussion about just what exactly would be impacted.
So if the State wants to build a highway in Northern California to be paid for with tolls and the tab is over $2 billion, voters in San Diego and Los Angeles get to weigh in. It would be like when voters in La Jolla telling Barrio Logan they didn’t like their community plan. Never mind that the ‘risk’ in revenue based bonds is shouldered by the private sector.
Prop 53 explicitly includes local projects financed and built by locally-created Joint Powers Authorities, or JPAs. And then there’s the question of what would be done in an emergency–think major earthquake. Would reconstruction have to wait for voter approval?
Overkilling the Delta Plan
The bottom line here is that Cortopassi & Co. want voters to help them block Gov. Brown’s $15.7 billion plan to build two giant tunnels to move water southward from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. (They, of course, deny any such motivation.)
The size and scope of the project, along with environmental considerations, make it difficult to imagine getting (water district) financing. US News & World Report says the project would “rival or dwarf most tunnel projects of recent decades, including the tunnel beneath the English Channel and Boston’s Big Dig.”
Cortopassi wants you to help him make sure this never happens.
The Contra Costa Times succinctly stated the case against Prop 53:
Voters shouldn’t lock into law any proposition leaving this much uncertainty, especially since it would require two-thirds approval to change or overturn it, even though it can pass initially with a simple majority. The governor is dead wrong about his $15 billion-and-counting Delta plan. But when he calls Cortopassi’s ballot measure ‘a really bad idea’ — that’s an understatement.”
You might wonder why I’m spinning such a word salad over such an obviously flawed measure. The problem is that it reads–on first glance–like a good idea.
The Public Policy Institute asked voters to weigh in with their opinions earlier in the year: 70% supported the concept.
(Coverage of Proposition 54 continues below the FYI part of this story.)
For More Information
Ballot Language – REVENUE BONDS. STATEWIDE VOTER APPROVAL. INITIATIVE CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT. Requires statewide voter approval before any revenue bonds can be issued or sold by the state for certain projects if the bond amount exceeds $2 billion. Fiscal Impact: State and local fiscal effects are unknown and would depend on which projects are affected by the measure and what actions government agencies and voters take in response to the measure’s voting requirement.
A YES vote would: Require statewide voter approval for revenue bonds totaling more than $2 billion for a project that is funded, owned, or managed by the state.
A NO vote would: Allow is measure means: State revenue bonds could continue to be used without voter approval.
Billionaire Three Card Monte
In the case of Prop 54, I’ll use the example of a hustler’s card trick to describe how this version of gaming the system.
(Yes, I know it’s not a perfect fit. But for purposes of simplifying an understanding of the process, it works.).
The classic short con known as Three Card Monte depends on a shill being able to con the mark into thinking there is a system to beat the dealer.
With Proposition 54, the shill is billionaire Charles Munger, the voting public is the mark, and so-called “special interests” (his kind, not the ‘bad’ kind) are the dealer.
We’re being told bad special interests have rigged the system and Mr. Munger has a way for us to win.
The primary selling point for this scam is the supposition that a 72-hour waiting period will prevent bad guys from doing bad things at the legislature. I am certain that there must be some horrible examples of this waiting to be working into commercials.
Another selling point is the requirement for all public legislative meetings to be recorded and available on the internet.
It sounds so simple. Who could be against these “common sense solutions?”
Are you ready to bet the farm and vote for Proposition 54? Charles Munger, his $9 million in political donations for this measure, and his Republican buddies like Mayor Kevin Faulconer certainly hope so.
What the 72-hourrequirement actually does is make it more difficult to craft late in the session compromises. Three days is more than enough time to generate a fierce lobbying campaign. This will serve as an effective hindrance, keeping politicians more in tune with the needs of those wealthy enough to put together such a lobbying campaign.
And did I mention that the insertion of a mere comma starts or restarts the 72-hour wait?
Opponents of Prop 54 cite bipartisan balanced budget agreements, the Fair Housing Act (against housing discrimination), and last year’s bond measure to address California’s drought as compromises likely to have never happened if this measure had been enacted.
More Attack Ads
The real zinger, though, is less obvious. While most hearings of the legislature are already broadcast to the public, current law prohibits using that footage in political commercials. Prop 54, eliminates that pesky prohibition, making it much easier to create attack ads.
The catchphrase “gut and amend” is getting thrown around a lot by proponents of this measure. What they don’t want you to know is that only those last minute presto-chango bills would be affected. For better or worse, many gut and amend bills are not last minute.
Ultimately, this bit of political misdirection is a two-edged sword. Until the day comes when meaningful restraints are placed on corporate/fat cat financial philandering in elections, it’s probably not a good idea to eliminate it at the behest of a corporate fat cat.
The ultimate example of a ‘good’ gut and amend is the 2006 climate change bill (AB32). Had the dirty energy industry been given the opportunity to mount an opposition campaign, the legislature would have never done the right thing.
Here’s Steve Maviglio, Democratic strategist, former deputy chief of staff in the California Assembly, and the leader in the fight against Prop 54, writing in the Modesto Bee:.
To be sure, legislative sausage-making isn’t always pretty. But thanks to the internet, the sun is shining. Citizens can watch the Legislature on the California Channel debate issues day or night. It is a welcome window into how the Legislature works.
So why the need to reduce these proceedings to 15-second attack ads? This provision of billionaire Charles Munger Jr.’s ballot measure would result in little more than fodder for negative campaigning and do nothing for transparency or improved public policymaking.
Let’s not give special interests any more tools to prevent lawmakers from doing the right thing, whether it be unnecessary delays in enacting legislation or ways to demonize the Legislature. The Munger measure, which is crafted for purely political reasons, should be rejected by voters.
Unfortunately, the number of competing propositions on the November ballot and the inherent difficulty in explaining what’s really going on here mean there isn’t much in the way of formal opposition.
For More Information
Ballot Language – LEGISLATURE. LEGISLATION AND PROCEEDINGS. INITIATIVE CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT AND STATUTE. Prohibits Legislature from passing any bill unless published on Internet for 72 hours before vote. Requires Legislature to record its proceedings and post on Internet. Authorizes use of recordings. Fiscal Impact: One-time costs of $1 million to $2 million and ongoing costs of about $1 million annually to record legislative meetings and make videos of those meetings available on the Internet.
A YES vote would: Require any bill (including changes to the bill) to be made available to legislators and posted on the Internet for at least 72 hours before the Legislature could pass it. The Legislature would have to ensure that its public meetings are recorded and make videos of those meetings available on the Internet.
A NO vote would: mean the rules and duties of the Legislature would not change.
For information on the November 2016 General Election, see our San Diego 2016 Progressive Voter Guide
Other San Diego Free Press coverage of the 2016 general election.
Tomorrow: Prop 55. Will all the millionaire flee California if we fund good schools? We’ll be writing about various state and local contests Monday-Friday for the next few weeks.
On This Day: 1962 – President John F. Kennedy nationalized the Mississippi National guard in response to city officials defying federal court orders. The orders had been to enroll James Meredith at the University of Mississippi. 1977 – Eva Shain became the first woman to officiate a heavyweight title boxing match. About 70 million people watched Muhammad Ali defeat Ernie Shavers on NBC-TV. 1989 – Bruce Springsteen stopped in a small salon in Prescott, AZ, and played a few songs with the band. He overheard a woman talking about financial problems concerning her medical bills. A week later she received a check for $100,000 from Springsteen.
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