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COURSEY: Ballot-box homework: A little is better than none

Published: Friday, October 26, 2012 at 12:47 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, October 26, 2012 at 12:47 p.m.

California's long list of ballot initiatives once again will leave many voters scratching their heads when they get to the polls on Nov. 6, with some of the 11 propositions painfully familiar after a barrage of mind-numbing advertising and others a complete mystery after non-existent campaigns.

Quick: What's your position on a two-year budget cycle for the state Legislature?

That question, asked by Proposition 31, no doubt will leave some pens hovering over ballot cards for at least a heartbeat or two. Then those voters will flip a mental coin, fill in “yes” or “no” or move on to Prop. 32.

Which they've heard about ad nauseam for weeks.

But is 32 truly a “paycheck protection” plan for union members, or is it a clever ploy to let “super PACS” gain control over California politics?

How's a voter to know?

Well, there's the traditional route, which includes actually studying the issues. That might include reading the actual text of the propositions, the legislative analyst's analysis and the official arguments for and against each initiative. All of that helpful information is included in the voter information guide that, if you're a registered voter, arrived in your mailbox some time in the past few weeks.

But geez, you might say, it's 143 pages long and doesn't even have any pictures. It's boring.

And that's music to the ears of the people who are financing the campaigns for and against these initiatives. They're hoping that voters won't study the facts, but instead will make up their minds based on advertising campaigns.

And many voters will do just that.

But, if you want to base your vote on a little more than just a TV ad that airs 70 jillion times during the World Series, but you also don't want to waste valuable Giants-viewing time by studying the ballot measures, there's a shortcut.

Follow the money.

The money trail provides great guidance for making ballot-box decisions, and doesn't take nearly as long as actually understanding the ballot issues. And while the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and our wimpy campaign finance disclosure laws leave too much of campaign financing a mystery to the general public, there's enough information available to help lazy voters.

One example is from The Sacramento Bee, which with the help of voters edge.org, provides a great little chart showing the biggest donors for and against California's 11 propositions on the Nov. 6 ballot. It includes links that explain who those donors are, and thus provides clues to their motives for spending so much, which in turn may help you decide which side you'll take. It also may convince you that you need to find out more about a couple of your fellow Californians, Charles and Molly Munger.

Here are some highlights:

Prop 30 — Gov. Jerry Brown's tax increases to provide revenue for the state budget. It's no surprise that the Service Employees International Union, the largest state public employee union, is the biggest single backer of this initiative with contributions of more than $8.5 million. But who is this guy Charles Munger, who has put up almost $22 million to defeat it? This is a man you should know, because he's been giving huge amounts of money to his favorite political causes for years. The link on the chart says he's a physicist at Stanford University, but his political record reveals much, much more. He's also the brother of Molly Munger, who is the brains and bucks behind Prop. 38 — the other measure on this year's ballot that would raise taxes to bolster California's budget.

Prop 31 — The two-year state budget. Sorry, but there's not a lot of help here. The biggest backer ($1.5 million) is the Nicolas Berggruen Institute, an international government-reform think tank that is the brainchild of the so-called “homeless billionaire” of the same name. Opposition, such as it is ($92,000), comes from public employee unions.

Prop 32 — Prohibits unions from using payroll-deducted funds for political purposes. This is the heavyweight fight of this election season in California. And the financial heavyweights are, in the “yes” corner: Charles Munger (see above), weighing in at almost $23 million; and, in the “no” corner, the California Teachers Association, weighing in at more than $20 million.

Prop 33 — Changes the rules on car insurance prices based on a customer's history buying insurance. This one couldn't be more clear. The owner of Mercury Insurance, who tried and failed to pass a similar measure in 2010, is the biggest backer with more than $16 million. The “no” campaign's biggest contributor is the California Nurses Association with $97,500.

Prop 37 — Requires labels for genetically modified foods. This fight is clogging the airwaves primarily with ads from the “no” side. The Organic Consumers Fund, the financial arm of a Washington, D.C., organic-food lobbying group, has contributed $1.3 million to get this passed. Monsanto Co., the leading producer of genetically engineered seed, has contributed more than $7 million to kill it.

Prop 38 — The rival measure to Prop 30 would direct new tax revenues more specifically to education. Molly Munger has put almost $39 million into promoting her initiative. The California Chamber of Commerce is the biggest single opponent, spending $23,500 so far.

The complete chart is here.

Is this chart an oversimplification of important issues that will affect California for decades to come? You bet it is, but it's better than flipping a coin in the ballot box.

Chris Coursey's blog offers a community commentary and forum, from issues of the day to the ingredients of life in Sonoma County.

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