Statewide ballot measure recommendations, November 2022

It’s time for my ballot measure recommendations once again! There are seven in California this November, but two are a matched set competing against each other, so they only need six writeups.

(There were none in June! It’s like a beautiful dream. Not a coincidence: the Legislature has been moving as much as possible to November, when more people vote.)

I hold ballot measures to a high standard. They should be things you can only do with a popular vote, which—thanks to our reactionary Constitution—includes most kinds of tax increase. Sometimes a measure is a decent idea in itself but should have been done without involving the voters.

Here’s your quick summary with links to full writeups:

Prop 1Guarantee right to abortion and contraception in ConstitutionYes
Prop 26Legalize sports gambling in casinos and racetracks only, plus dice and roulette in casinosNo
Prop 27Legalize sports gambling everywhereNo
Prop 28Guarantee (without finding) funds for arts and music educationNo
Prop 29Increase regulation of dialysis clinicsNo
Prop 30Tax rich to fund climate investments, mostly electric carsYes
Prop 31Uphold Legislature’s ban on flavored tobaccoYes

Prop 1: Full abortion and contraception rights in the Constitution. Yes

California laws are already pretty hospitable to abortion, and there was a Roe-like judicial decision in 1969 before Roe, but this measure would enshrine it in the Constitution so no future legislature (or judiciary) could ban or significantly restrict abortion if the winds changed.

I don’t care to devote space here debating abortion. If you think the government should have a say in that choice, you might as well close this browser tab. Although a compelling new argument is now adding to the old ones: that forced birth would be wrong even if you fully believed a fetus were a person (which almost no one really does)—in the same way that forcing a life-saving organ donation is intuitively wrong, because people have autonomy over taking medical risks with their own bodies.

Prop 1 isn’t just a thumb-nose at Republicans, though; it could help a lot of people. Right now, the state has a viability limit for abortion, 26-28 weeks. There’s supposed to be a medical exemption, but in practice, our laws don’t give doctors the confidence to give late-term abortions even when they’re 100% medically indicated. California should be a sanctuary, but women still actually have to leave the state to get some kinds of vital abortions. Prop 1 doesn’t prohibit time-limit laws in so many words, but by declaring abortion an unqualified right, it puts them under heavy scrutiny and they’d probably be declared inconsistent.

It’s short enough I’ll reproduce the full text:

The state shall not deny or interfere with an individual’s reproductive freedom in their most intimate decisions, which includes their fundamental right to choose to have an abortion and their fundamental right to choose or refuse contraceptives. This section is intended to further the constitutional right to privacy guaranteed by Section 1, and the constitutional right to not be denied equal protection guaranteed by Section 7. Nothing herein narrows or limits the right to privacy or equal protection.

Yes, these changes could technically be done by the Legislature, but abortion really is a fundamental right and should be enshrined as such alongside the others. Let’s do this. Yes.

Props 26 and 27, sports gambling: No and No.

These two are the matched pair: 26 was proposed by opponents of 27 in hopes of making it fail. If they both get a majority, the one with more votes becomes law. 

Prop 27 would legalize sports gambling statewide. Prop 26 would legalize it only at existing (tribal) casinos and the state’s few racetracks. Prop 26 would also allow casinos to offer roulette and dice games which they currently can’t. (This was all kicked off by the US Supreme Court a few years ago killing federal laws limiting sports gambling to a few states—thanks, Alito.)

The backers of Prop 27 are big gambling companies like BetMGM and Betfair, who’ve put up $100 million. The tribes responded to the business threat of Prop 27 with their own alternative, which ended up being numbered as 26. The tribes have supplied over $110m so far if you combine their “yes on 26” with “no on 27” spending. 

Both measures would collect some tax money off the profits, to go to worthy causes. Prop 27 would generate between $200 and $425 million per year, dedicated to homelessness and gambling addiction, plus a little compensation money to tribes without casinos. Prop 26 would not legalize as much new gambling to tax, so it probably wouldn’t raise more than $25 million per year. The majority would go to education.

So, what’s wrong with sports gambling? Why isn’t this just another thing to legalize and tax, like recreational drugs?

Well, there are addictions and then there are addictions. Criminalizing activities that only harm oneself is never useful; but you can decriminalize or legalize something without making it a capital-I Industry, with investment capital and ads and marketers and magazines and CEOs all trying to take it to the moon. We made marijuana a commercial product, but we wouldn’t want to do the same with opiates or amphetamines, though we should legalize them.

We know gambling has addictive qualities; it’s a machine that tickles the brain to get people to do it more, even if they know better. And the addiction does destroy peoples’ lives in many cases; we don’t need a study for that, although plenty exist. (About 1-3% of people have a gambling disorder, and of those, large portions have major financial problems. So what’s the most reliable way to keep it legal but minimize negative impact?

Part of the answer seems to be limiting access. This meta-analysis of several studies put together finds that proximity to gambling opportunities is associated with a lot more of it. That result makes sense to me: people do what comes easily, and what comes easily becomes a habit when it might not have otherwise. (Just like smoking rates are mostly a function of price.)

If I could make a reliable mechanism to prevent anyone from gambling more than, say, a couple thousand dollars a year, I’d say let it rip, but that’s unlikely. So limit access: let it be legal in limited locations, where it takes some effort to get to, an hour’s travel or more. Our current system with tribal casinos is, accidentally, more or less that system. It doesn’t prevent unlicensed gambling, but that’s usually at smaller volumes—no advertising billboards or behavioral psychologists or private equity funding.

So for me, Prop 26 is a soft no, Prop 27 is a hard no. Prop 26 will barely change how gambling works at casinos, just offer more types, sports betting, dice games, and roulette. It will bring sports betting to racetracks, which could increase problem users more given their central locations (Golden Gate Fields, Santa Anita), but again, probably a small effect. Prop 27 is by far the scarier prospect, putting legal sports-betting apps on cell phones. If being within 50 miles of a casino is a measurable risk factor, imagine being within five feet of a betting app 24 hours a day! Australia and the UK have this, and it hasn’t been a pretty picture.

When I thought Prop 27 might well win, I was thinking I’d recommend voting for Prop 26—because it would cancel out Prop 27 if it got a bigger majority. But with the onslaught of ads against Prop 27, that one is now twenty points behind in the polls, so that doesn’t seem like much of a risk. I’m going to vote no on both—though to be candid, if Prop 26 passes anyway, I might try the new craps tables on occasion.

Prop 28, reserving funding for school arts and music programs: No

This measure is a textbook example of how ballot-box budgeting, one of the scourges of California governance, can be so attractive. Our school funding was pummeled by Prop 13 in 1978, and to blunt the huge impact it had on schools, we passed Prop 98 which required the state to spend about 40% of the general fund on K-12 education. But that was a stopgap, and resources stayed limited. So public schools often pared down the “less essential” courses, like arts and music, to the bone. Which is bad.

Prop 28 would force an additional requirement: the Legislature would need to increase Prop 98 funding by 1%, the money used to hire new staff. 70% of it would be distributed by enrollment, 30% by low-income student count. Critically, unlike previous school funding measures I’ve endorsed, it does not raise taxes to create this new funding, but just requires the Legislature to find this new money within existing funding: about $1 billion per year. 

So every year, this forces the Legislature to pick arts education for a certain amount over housing and homelessness, over disability benefits and job programs and public safety, over anything else they might consider a priority. (It does have some escape hatches if there’s a severe recession.)

Is that a good decision? In this specific case, yes, we can almost certainly afford it and it’s a good thing to be doing. But is that a good way to practice governance? No. We need to elect our legislators so they can make contextual decisions, not be tied up in knots with a dozen initiatives pulling them a dozen directions. 

It’s easy to cry “slippery slope” at whatever you don’t like, but in the ten years I’ve done these writeups, there haven’t been any measures like this at the state level I can remember, and I fear passing this one could make the idea more popular. Look at San Francisco, where for every popular department there’s a “Friends of…” nonprofit that periodically passes a guarantee for the department to get money every year whether or not the money is there. 

There’s recently another ballot measure making its way through the Legislature, not yet on the ballot, which would guarantee a share of the budget for housing and homelessness. That cause is particularly near and dear to me, but I would have to oppose that as likely to make California’s finances substantially more chaotic in the future. I oppose Prop 28 for the same reason. No.

Prop 29: Increase regulations on dialysis clinics: No

Prop 29 is almost identical to Prop 23 in 2020, which I wrote about in detail then. The policy is to require a bit more staffing and reporting at dialysis clinics, and to make it a bit harder to close them. In context, it’s another blow in the long-running conflict between the dialysis firms (big, monopolistic, bad) and the union SEIU-UHW West which is trying to organize their workers.

At the time I gave no recommendation and said it should be a gut call based on whether you think the regulations are good enough to be worth imposing in this highly flawed way. This time, I say—enough. 

Prop 23 in 2020 lost by 26 points. It had another predecessor in 2018 which lost by 20 points. Each time, the dialysis firms spent over $100 million in opposition. So this is the unions’ third try, and by now it’s ridiculously obvious: they do not expect to win, they just mean to make the firms pay a price for every two years they do not make negotiating concessions.

I want these clinics organized. The dialysis firms may well be engaging in quasi-legal intimidation tactics to deny the unions a level playing field for it. But the unions should in that case be organizing for better rules and better enforcement, not playing these big-money, big-consultant games that waste the public’s time and their own. No. 

Prop 30: Make climate investments, mostly electrifying cars, with tax on the rich: Yes

Prop 30’s funding is coming almost entirely from Lyft. Right off the bat, that’s a yellow flag: I try to avoid ever supporting measures from for-profit corporations that relate to their own business. Lyft in particular co-sponsored with Uber an especially bad measure in 2020. But surprisingly, this time Lyft put in some real effort to make their new proposal win-win. 

The measure raises the state income tax by 1.75% for the portions of incomes over $2 million, raising three to four billion a year for 20 years. 

It spends that money as follows:

  • 35% on electric vehicle (EV) fueling infrastructure—that is, chargers
  • 45% on EV purchases and other clean transportation investments
  • The last 20% on wildfire prevention, on the logic that today’s wildfire intensity is a climate impact

Prop 30 would create a lot of subsidies to make it easy for Californians to switch to electric cars. Not necessarily just the new-car rebates we’ve had so far: also other methods like smaller rebates for used EVs, or financing on better terms for people with bad credit. The California Air Resources Board would decide exactly how to do it, with a mandate to target low-income people and disadvantaged communities.

The “chargers” part is also a game-changer for EVs. Right now there’s basically no model for putting electric chargers in anything but an owner-occupied single-family home. Subsidies could make them more plentiful in homes and apartment buildings alike.

Some of the 45% piece can also go to ebikes, electric buses, electric vanpools, and even non-vehicles like bike lanes or transit passes, as long as it’s in the ballpark of transportation transformation.

Why does Lyft care so much about this? The California Legislature recently required the transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft to electrify their fleets by 2030. Lyft decided that they could get the rich of California to shoulder a chunk of this cost by fielding this measure.

And it will definitely be possible for TNC drivers to get EVs with this money. Prop 30 does correctly give individuals first dibs on subsidies, corporations have to come after them. But TNC drivers buy new cars on a faster schedule than most people do. Plus, the secondary firms that maintain big fleets to rent out to TNC drivers might be poised to buy a lot more, so even if they’re last in line, a good chunk of the subsidies might end up with them.

There are also problems with the main climate strategy being converting gas cars to EVs. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change periodically reminds everyone that switching cars to electric will not, on its own, achieve the carbon reductions we need. Gas cars now on the road will stay on the road for decades, so even if every new car bought from today on were an EV, progress would be slow. It emits substantial carbon to manufacture the steel for EVs in the first place. A complete strategy against climate change harm must both switch over vehicles, and redesign our transportation system so that people make far less use of cars of any kind. More public transportation; more biking & walking; denser infill housing so those are options to more people.

Prop 30 definitely does the former more than the latter. Some of the 35% chunk going to chargers might charge buses and trucks, but most will likely be for private cars. And of the 45% chunk that goes to other climate investments, two-thirds, that is, 30% of the total funds, are required to go to car subsidies for at least the first five years. That leaves a majority of the funds total going to private cars or their chargers, which is skewed. A lot of investment is needed into buses, rail, sidewalks, and e-bikes. (E-bikes in particular with their new popularity are likely to help at a much lower cost per car replaced.) The Inflation Reduction Act that just passed Congress is promising $7,500 subsidies per EV too, which will further the skew.

The legislature can change all the allocations in the measure, but only with a 3/4 vote in both houses. That would take almost every Democrat there is, and getting every Democrat would not be easy. After five years, CARB can change the allocation of the 45%, but who knows if they will.

But on the other hand: 15% of the total revenue not explicitly spoken for is over $500 million a year. That’s a ton more that could go to public transit, bikes, and bike lanes than there is today—although spending that $500m well requires heavy advocacy work. And while putting a ton of money into electrification isn’t sufficient, it is absolutely necessary. Every new carbon-spewing car sold is a tragedy, and we need to do everything we can to stop fossil fuel consumption. (And the cars bought for TNC use will probably be sold on once several years old, which will get more non-TNC cars off the road.)

In the end, despite my reservations about how this bill prioritizes, we are in a climate crisis and Prop 30 genuinely puts in badly needed investments. What cemented my support is this: Prop 30 represents 5 years of car-centric investment, followed by up to 15 years of better investment, if we play our cards right.

(Why is Governor Newsom opposed when the Democratic Party is in favor? He may resent Lyft benefiting just as I do, but also, the California Teachers Association is used to adding income tax increments from time to time to boost school investment, and they are concerned that this 1.75% increment crowds out the opportunity.)

I’m always telling people we cannot make the perfect the enemy of the good, and I want to practice what I preach, even when the imperfections really annoy me. So I say yes.

Prop 31: Uphold flavored tobacco ban. Yes

This is nice and simple. There has been a growing movement to ban flavored tobacco, including menthol, including in e-cigarettes, because of substantial evidence that it helps young people start more easily. It passed in many cities across the state, then it passed the State Legislature, but then the tobacco industry put this on the ballot to try to get the public to reverse it. Voting yes upholds the ban, voting no rejects it like the tobacco companies want.

The FDA has also proposed a nationwide ban on flavored tobacco. It takes a lot of evidence for them to be that bold. Here’s some of the evidence.

Similar to with gambling, you don’t want to ban recreational-but-harmful activities entirely lest they go underground, but you can make them more difficult and less attractive short of a ban. Requiring tobacco taste like tobacco is a great example. Yes.

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