Ballot measure recommendations: Statewide, June 2018

The statewide ballot measures up in June 2018 are sedate and understated by comparison with November 2016, but there are some stinkers hidden among them.

As usual, I offer dual recommendations for you to consider – one recommending a “yes” for anything with objective benefit (“utilitarian”), the second also weighing whether it needed to be a ballot measure to come to fruition (“anticlutter”). The second is meant for people willing to vote “no” to punish backers for wasting the public’s time on something only slightly good.
Statewide voter guide here. If you read it, prioritize reading the Legislative Analyst’s explanations over the pro and con arguments.

Summary of what you will find below:

Measure number/description
Utilitarian recommendation
Anticlutter recommendation
Prop 68: Bond for Water, Parks, Environment
Yes
Yes
Prop 69: Gas Tax Lockbox
No
No
Prop 70: Cap-and-Trade Midpoint Redo
No
No
Prop 71: Preventing Headaches with Effective Date of Ballot Measures
Yes
Yes
Prop 72: Tax Break for Rainwater Capture / Storage
Yes
No


Coming up in a week or two: Alameda County Measure A, Oakland Measure D, and Regional Measure 3 (Bay toll).

Proposition 68: Bond for Parks, Water, Environment

Under this proposition, California would borrow $4 billion to spend on various causes regarding the natural world – in ways to help humans specifically, the state’s environment generally, and to make the interaction between the two healthier. Of the money, about 38% would go to wildlife, habitat, and waterway preservation and improvements; 31% to state and local parks and trails; and the remaining 31% to water resilience – flood protection, groundwater protection and cleanup, and drinking water improvements.

These are all good causes that have labored under generations of underfunding. And there is value in paying for them by borrowing, as opposed to merely taxing: getting the money up front lets us fill in the infrastructure gaps and lay the groundwork for a better future economy.

There’s also a level of urgency to this spending: how well situated will we be if more Flints start popping up across the state? Or if floods overwhelm Sacramento? Borrowing costs rose a bit in 2017, but they are still historically low (about 3%): investors are happy to park money with us while we use it.


From the perspective of whether this is clutter, this kind of bond does unfortunately require voter approval under the state constitution, so it did need to go on the ballot to happen. (Hey, wacky idea: how about we let the Legislature approve new bonds on its own authority as long as they are not projected to increase total state debt-to-GDP ratio? Bond packages have a lifespan, after all; these bonds we vote on are often just replacing old packages that were paid off; and we know some level of debt is part of a healthy government’s functioning.)

Utilitarian recommendation: Yes
Anticlutter recommendation: Yes

Proposition 69: Gas Tax Lockbox


Last year, California’s policymakers did something they rarely do: came together with a two-thirds vote to approve new tax revenue for transportation under Senate Bill 1 – that is, approved a significant new tax without consulting voters directly. A good piece of this revenue came from diesel fuel (trucks) and the fossil fuel industry (storage fees), but yes, a big chunk of it is from taking about 12 cents more tax per gallon of gas, as well as some car registration fee hikes, scaled up the more expensive your car is. The money from SB1 is already being used to fix local streets and roads as well as state highways, repair bridges and culverts, improve public transit and ports, and more.

Is it the right way? Yes, it is entirely appropriate to partially fund road infrastructure with user fees, just as we partially fund public transit with fares. Current gas taxes are historically low as inflation has eaten them away; SB1 indexes taxes to inflation going forward. And it’s fair. I’m now a car owner, but I still see that car owners have been getting a sweet deal from the government for a long time, expecting the existence of streets, parking, and highways without having to pay for them. In fact to maintain this “deal,” we have allowed our roads and entire transportation system to slowly deteriorate over a generation. The new taxes and fees redress that balance somewhat; more is likely required in the future.

Under the constitution, to pass all this without going to the voters (thanks, Prop 13), the Legislature had to find a two-thirds majority, which meant going to Republicans. Enough Republicans did eventually come around because even they see the desperate need for road funding. But somewhere it was decided, either as part of the deal or as part of the plans to defend the tax going forward, that this constitutional amendment needed to be added afterward, and that’s how we got Prop 69.


Prop 69 is not a vote that would confirm or repeal the tax itself. (That may be coming in November as a GOP-sponsored referendum.) It merely makes the state constitution guarantee that the money must continue to go to transportation purposes, just as the law currently states, but preventing the Legislature from changing its mind in the future.

Sounds reasonable? No, not really. Let me recite from the hymnal. Ballot-box budgeting doesn’t work. Every little constraint attached to every new source of funding adds to a huge quicksand of restrictions the Legislature and Governor – the people we supposedly elect to manage the system as a whole – must wade through at frequent intervals, especially in recessions. Besides the practical problems, it comes from an inherently Republican, reactionary ideology: the idea that government inherently mismanages money and that we must hold it at arm’s length, cram it in a box, forbid it from doing whatever irks us at the moment. 


It’s true that government can curdle and go bureaucratic and ineffective; but while you can pass laws against corruption, you can’t ban inefficiency or mismanagement. Instead, we need to stridently and inconveniently demand the provision of vital services and hold account the people we elect to find sustainable ways to pay for them.

For full disclosure, while I oppose Prop 69, a wide range of left-leaning organizations do support it, and there is an argument that passing it might hurt the case for Republicans’ SB1 repeal measure in November.

Utilitarian recommendation: No
Anticlutter recommendation: No

Prop 70: Cap-and-Trade Midpoint Redo

This is another “restrain how revenue can be used” measure, but more convoluted than 69.

California has led the country with a cap-and-trade program to make corporations pay for their carbon generation. It needs to be stepped up to make carbon appropriately expensive and reduce loopholes, but it points the way forward. In 2017, Democrats successfully prevented it from sunsetting, extending it in more or less its current form through 2030. Again, they needed two-thirds support, and so again they had to enlist a lot of centrists and Republicans.

Prop 70 would not dedicate cap-and-trade revenue to particular purposes. Instead, it would trigger a new vote in the Legislature in 2024 to confirm how the revenues are being used, with two-thirds support that one time only. (Normally a mere majority can pass a budget allocating funds.) The idea is that if the Democratic majority has been allocating money in objectionable non-consensus ways, they only have six years, and a minority can force the allocation to become more reasonable in 2024.

This was specifically an Assembly Republican leader’s condition on supporting cap-and-trade renewal, his goal being to torpedo high-speed rail funding at that later date. However, the Republicans thought they had gotten the Democratic Party’s agreement to support the proposition, and in fact while Democrats did vote to put it on the ballot, only Jerry Brown has come out in support since then.

It has no carrots, only built-in sticks directed against both left and right to help guarantee some compromise be reached. If no agreement passes with two-thirds support in 2024, the funds keep being collected but pile up in the Treasury, unspendable (bad for Democrats). At the same time, it also triggers a change in tax law that would jack up sales taxes on manufacturers (bad for business interests and Republicans).

This is ballot-box budgeting, but it’s also downright strange with its too-clever-by-half machinations. If passed, I assess a 75% chance it has no effect and a 25% chance it backfires horribly. I recommend a no vote as much out of pity as anything else.

Utilitarian recommendation: No
Anticlutter recommendation: No

Prop 71: Preventing Headaches with the Effective Date of Ballot Measures

This is one of those rarities, a constitutional amendment that really is a minor technical tweak with little to no political implications, just helping the machinery of government work a little better.

Right now, if the voters pass a new law in an election, and if the law doesn’t say otherwise, its effective date is right after the vote – the day after Election Day. So for example, when Prop 64 won in 2016, holding, sharing, and growing small amounts of marijuana was legal under state law on Wednesday, November 9. But what if Prop 64 had been a squeaker instead of winning decisively? With more vote-by-mail ballots every year, the vote taking longer and longer after Election Day to count, it could have meant weeks of legal limbo. People could have been arrested under one law and have it later turn out the law was not in effect. And all these headaches are entirely preventable. Prop 71 very simply waits to put any ballot measure into effect until the Secretary of State officially certifies the vote, a maximum of a 38-day wait.

I will note that sometimes these technical changes help us more than we can predict. In June 2016, the electorate gave the Legislature power to expel its members for misconduct. At the time, we were thinking of corruption cases. But this year, three state legislators have resigned due to sexual harassment charges, and for one of them, the threat of imminent expulsion was a motivator. So let’s do our future selves a favor and pass this fix.

Utilitarian recommendation: Yes
Anticlutter recommendation: Yes

Prop 72: Tax Break for Rainwater Capture and Storage

Despite the drought being technically over, we know water supply will be a problem in California for the foreseeable future. One way to adapt to a warmer climate with less snow and more rain is to install rainwater catchment systems (RCS) that generate nonpotable water for uses like irrigation: tanks or cisterns set up to collect all the runoff from a roof or other areas. So there’s certainly environmental value in adding subsidies to lower the price of RCS.

Promoting RCS is the idea behind Prop 72, but it goes about it entirely the wrong way, by writing into the constitution that the Legislature may exempt the value of RCS from property tax. The pricetag? Only a few million dollars a year, in the LAO’s estimate. The Legislature and Governor find that level of budget room for little programs like this all the time, and could have done the same in this case. This minuscule amount of spending in no way, shape, or form needed to take up our attention on the ballot.

Putting it in the Constitution also ignores the need to test and tweak. What is the best way to encourage RCS? Should it be dollar amounts, or a flat percentage? Should it be paid up front when someone buys the system as with solar panels, or slowly over years? Should we spend more on subsidizing it on private property, or on directly building larger, public RCS? This is exactly the kind of question voters should not be asked, a big reason we have representative government, because this kind of work is boring and tedious and needs specialists and the ability to course-correct.

I suspect this proposition was written for the benefit of one person, State Senator Steve Glazer, who got his name in big letters backing this bit of feelgoodism in the voter guide.

It is true that taken on its own it would probably be a benefit to the environment, technically, and on a tiny scale, making RCS pencil out a bit better for homeowners. So it’s a textbook example of how an anticlutter recommendation can clash with a utilitarian one.

Utilitarian recommendation: YesAnticlutter recommendation: No

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