Dan Walters

Dan Walters: Expensive measures are on tap for California ballot

One of the many issues facing California voters this year is whether taxes on cigarettes should be raised by $2 a pack.
One of the many issues facing California voters this year is whether taxes on cigarettes should be raised by $2 a pack. Associated Press file

California voters will be hammered by a perfect political storm this year, facing at least a dozen major, high-dollar ballot measures.

The record-low turnout of voters in 2014 lowered the signature threshold of placing initiative measures on the 2016 ballot, although with so many measures circulating, sponsors are forced to pay very high fees to professional signature-gatherers.

More than 100 potential measures were filed. While relatively few will qualify, it will still make for a crowded, controversy-laced November ballot.

A report last week from Maplight, which tracks campaign spending, hints of what’s to come. It says that the pharmaceutical industry has already committed $49 million against a ballot measure that would impose tight controls on drug prices charged to the state.

That’s more than 11 times what the drug measure’s backer, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, has spent so far and more than half of the $81.1 million donated for and against pending ballot measures to date.

The AIDS group will be spread very thin, not only trying to get the drug price measure passed but another initiative that would require actors in porn films to use condoms in sex scenes.

Another big medical issue for voters is a pending, union-sponsored measure to curb hospital executives’ salaries.

Still another hint that this could be a record year for spending is that a high-powered business coalition has been formed to oppose a labor union-backed measure to raise California’s minimum wage to $15 an hour and index it to inflation. The coalition includes the California Chamber of Commerce, one of the state’s most influential business groups.

Business, however, is divided on a referendum by the plastic bag industry to overturn the state’s new ban on its products.

Unions, meanwhile, will be pushing voters to extend the higher income tax rates on affluent taxpayers that were imposed temporarily in 2012.

There was only token opposition to the 2012 tax hike, sponsored by Gov. Jerry Brown, but he hasn’t signed on to this year’s version, which could clear the way for an opposition campaign.

Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who aspires to succeed Brown in 2018, is pushing two profile-raising measures, one to impose additional controls on ammunition and another to legalize recreational marijuana. The firearms industry will oppose the first, but the lineup of proponents and opponents on the second is still cloudy as agricultural and other interests weigh whether to jump in.

As voters decide whether Californians can legally toke, they’ll also decide whether to impose a $2 per pack hike on regular tobacco products – one certain to draw expensive fire from the tobacco industry. And the industry also may challenge, via referendum, pending bills that would impose more restrictions on smoking.

Brown may be neutral on income taxes, but he’ll be active elsewhere.

He’ll push his own measure to lighten up criminal sentences – if the state Supreme Court rules that it’s legal – and will face stiff law enforcement opposition.

Brown will certainly oppose two measures that could torpedo his two pet legacy projects, twin water tunnels under the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and a north-south bullet train.

Brown also criticizes, and may oppose, a measure that would issue $9 billion in school construction bonds.

It is, to use a Brownism, a yeasty mixture of issues.