Capitol Alert

California voters face full plate of initiatives on Nov. 8

California voters will confront a smorgasbord of policy questions on the November ballot, with initiatives ranging from marijuana legalization and the death penalty to gun control and taxes qualifying by the Thursday deadline.

The Nov. 8 ballot includes the largest number of measures – 17 – since 2000, when 20 measures qualified, according to the California secretary of state’s office. The most all time was in November 1914, when 48 measures appeared.

Only the Legislature can add more measures to the ballot now, and it will have little time to do so after returning from its summer recess in August.

Asked on Thursday if the crowded ballot might confuse voters, Gov. Jerry Brown told reporters, “No more than usual.”

State law sets ballot order, depending on each measure’s type and when it qualified. The secretary of state’s office will assign proposition numbers in the coming days.

Recreational marijuana

California looked poised to become the first state in the nation to legalize recreational marijuana six years ago with Proposition 19. But opponents tore into its detailed provisions and exploited vague areas of the measure that could have been spelled out more clearly. Now comes a new measure allowing adults 21 years and older to possess, use and share up to an ounce of marijuana. The campaign is supported by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom and funded by billionaire activist Sean Parker. Opponents so far have highlighted a provision allowing people with certain drug felony convictions to apply for a license under the measure.

Revenue bonds

Posing a threat to Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to build two tunnels to divert water beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the south, this initiative would require voter approval before the state could issue revenue bonds for any project costing more than $2 billion. The initiative is backed by Dean Cortopassi, a wealthy Stockton-area farmer, and supported by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. The measure is opposed by Brown, state business and labor groups and by the California Democratic Party.

Death penalty repeal

Four years after California voters narrowly rejected an end to the death penalty, advocates are trying again. Led by former “M*A*S*H” star Mike Farrell, the measure would abolish capital punishment and replace it with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Supporters such as Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, contend that executions are costly, inhumane and bound to kill wrongly convicted people. It should be a close decision again, as a January Field Poll showed voters nearly evenly divided between repealing the death penalty and speeding up the process.

Death penalty speed-up

Stalled by legal challenges to its lethal drug cocktail, California has not executed an inmate since 2006. Former professional football player Kermit Alexander, whose relatives were murdered three decades ago by a man now on death row, is tired of it. Backed by law enforcement groups, he is pushing an initiative that would speed up the death penalty by putting the California Supreme Court in charge of an expedited appeals process. If both Alexander’s measure and another seeking to abolish capital punishment pass in November, whichever receives more votes would become law.

Bilingual education

In 1998, California voters passed a proposition banning public schools from teaching English learners primarily in their native language. Now Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, wants to repeal sections of that initiative and bring back bilingual programs, which supporters argue is just as effective at educating students as moving them into full-time English instruction right away. The measure was placed on the ballot by the Legislature’s majority Democrats, over the objections of original proponents like Silicon Valley software entrepreneur Ron Unz, who mounted a brief run for U.S. Senate this year to bring attention to the effort. But it could be a very quiet campaign, as neither side has yet raised any money.

Ammunition restrictions

Ahead of a 2018 gubernatorial run, Newsom is pursuing a high-profile gun control initiative. The proposal would institute background checks for ammunition purchases, prohibit the possession of magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, mandate reporting of lost and stolen guns, and establish a process to seize firearms from those prohibited from owning them. Gun rights and law enforcement groups oppose the measure, arguing it would do nothing to prevent criminals from obtaining weapons and ammunition via the black market or theft, but they have been vastly outraised in a state with the strictest gun policies in the country.

Income tax increase

Four years after voters approved temporary tax increases, they will be asked to extend a portion of those higher taxes for more than a decade. The measure would extend by 12 years higher income taxes on individual filers earning more than $250,000 a year, funding education and health care programs. It is supported by the California Teachers Association, Service Employees International Union and California Association of Hospitals and Health Systems. The California Chamber of Commerce opposes the measure.

Tobacco tax

With the industry still reeling from a historic set of anti-smoking laws, a coalition of labor unions, medical associations, health advocates and one billionaire environmentalist are taking another shot at tobacco. The proposal raises taxes on cigarettes by $2 a pack, to $2.87, and similarly taxes other tobacco products, as well as e-cigarettes and vaporizers. The industry has mounted well-funded opposition campaigns in defeating past tax increase efforts, but this time will face far deeper-pocketed foes.

Plastic bag referendum

The plastic bag industry is fighting a statewide ban on single-use bags passed by the California Legislature two years ago. Out-of-state plastic bag companies launched a referendum shortly after the bill passed, effectively suspending the law from going into effect. Dozens of cities and counties have enacted their own local bans, but the bag industry is spending millions in hopes of overturning the statewide ban.

Plastic bags II

Grocers call it big plastic’s revenge, while the industry says it’s simply creating good public policy. Whatever the motive, the plastic bag industry has coupled the referendum to overturn a statewide bag ban with a ballot measure to divert profits from bag sales away from grocers and into an environmental fund.

Citizens United

In a measure with no legal force, this question asks voters whether elected officials should “use all of their constitutional authority,” including proposing an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, to reverse the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision on campaign financing. That court ruling held that First Amendment free-speech protections prohibit limiting independent campaign expenditures by corporations and labor unions. The measure was placed on the ballot by the Democratic-controlled Legislature, with many Republicans opposed.

Drug price caps

The initiative would prevent the California government from spending more on a prescription drug than the lowest price paid by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Michael Weinstein, head of the sponsoring AIDS Healthcare Foundation, believes it will immediately lower drug prices for some Californians, then have what the campaign calls a “cascade effect” on prices broadly. Critics, led by drug manufacturers, are prepared to mount a well-funded opposition campaign. They say it excludes the vast majority of residents, will lead to more bureaucracy, and ultimately do little to lower prices for anyone.


Is porn safe for performers? That’s the central question informing this measure requiring adult film stars to wear protection. Its proponent, AIDS Healthcare Foundation head Weinstein, points to repeated instances over the last decade of performers testing HIV-positive. The film industry insists those transmissions occurred outside of regulated shoots and argues its suggested protocol of regular testing has worked well. Mandating condoms, opponents warn, would drive shoots underground or out of state.

Criminal justice

In a sweeping effort to reduce prison crowding and ease effects of California’s fixed-term sentencing standards, the initiative would make some nonviolent felons eligible for early parole and give the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation authority to award credits for good behavior. The initiative is backed by Gov. Jerry Brown, who signed – and later came to regret – more rigid sentencing standards when he was governor before, from 1975 to 1983. Brown has millions in his campaign account, but it remains unclear how much opponents, led by the California District Attorneys Association, can muster.

School construction bonds

The $9 billion borrowing measure is the first statewide school bond measure to go before voters in a decade. Developers, school builders and school officials led the campaign to put the bond issue before voters after multiple attempts to do the same in the Legislature failed to advance. Brown, who has sought to minimize the state’s involvement in local school construction, has criticized the measure. But supporters say it would meet a crucial need for more state school construction money and prevent steep hikes in local fees on new homes to make up the difference.

Hospital fees

Seven years after lawmakers first approved the charge, the measure would lock into place the quality assurance fee on hospitals. Supported by hospital groups, the fee saves the state general fund several hundred million dollars annually as well as helps pull down several billion dollars in federal money that helps pay for Medi-Cal and other programs. Last month, lawmakers voted to extend the fee another year. Supporters, led by the California Hospital Association, say they want the ballot measure to eliminate any questions about the fee’s future. There is no opposition.

Legislative transparency

Perhaps no individual has played a larger role in California politics in the past decade than Charles M. Munger Jr. The Stanford physicist, who has given millions to Republican candidates and other causes over the years, has teamed up with former GOP lawmaker Sam Blakeslee to change how the Legislature conducts its business. Lawmakers could not pass any bill that has not been in print and published on the internet for at least 72 hours. It also requires the Legislature to post videos of all of its proceedings.

Click here to go to The Money Trail.

Taryn Luna, Christopher Cadelago, Anshu Siripurapu, Jeremy B. White and Alexei Koseff of The Bee Capitol Bureau contributed to this report.

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders

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