How I’m voting on California propositions and Senate

Like most of the country, I’ve spent way too much time thinking about Presidential politics over the past seeming eternity of an election cycle. In the last week, I decided to change that and focus on California’s ballot propositions. For many of the propositions, I went straight to the voter guide. The background and analysis provides interesting information on how the state government works in general (the arguments for and against were less helpful). This includes funding sources and polls, which I combined with Dem/GOP endorsements and my own position in this spreadsheet. Props also to the nonpartisan, which summarizes them in a much more digestible and research-linking way; if you consult only one resource, this is the one I’d recommend. I also blatantly stole their headlines for many section headers.

With 17 measures on the state ballot, plus 25 in my city of San Francisco, I admit this process has made me a bit cynical of direct democracy. It’s been a serious time investment, for which I imagine relatively few have the appetite. As a result, I’m generally sympathetic to the position that propositions should be a last resort after exhausting normal legislative processes, and therefore a default vote should be no. I still voted for over half the propositions this year, though that’s less than the polls suggest and less than the Democratic Party (my affiliation) endorsed.

I spent more research on the propositions which were closest in the polls: 62 (-13%), 67 (+15%), and 51 (+18%); and least on those with the largest poll spread: 54 (+57%), 61 (+51%), and 53 (+48%).

Prop 51: $9B bond to build and improve schools

While the California Democratic and Republican parties both support this, and I’m reluctant not to approve education funding, I agree with Governor Jerry Brown, likely Senator-to-be Kamala Harris and the San Jose Mercury News in opposing it as an inappropriate use of bonds. Bonds should finance one-time projects over many years, while 51 provides grants that should be part of the standard budget process (and effectively would be, given the principal and 5% interest would come out of the General Fund without accompanying tax increases).

With schools financed largely by property taxes, budget shortfalls are the direct result of Prop 13 (which I discuss more in the Prop 55 section). This means of funding does leave poorer districts underfinanced, but 51 carries no guarantee that funds will reach these districts. On the contrary, Gov. Brown’s core criticism is that funds are allocated according to first-come-first-served grant proposals, which are more likely to benefit affluent districts with capabilities to draft such applications. To ensure higher quality, more equitable education, Californians should (1) elect legislators who will approve financing under the normal legislative process (possibly including tax increases), (2) continue to raise property taxes locally, and (3) ultimately repeal Prop 13.

Prop 52: Continuation of a mechanism that makes money for hospitals

Prop 13 serves as a cautionary tale of the style of permanent changes from propositions embodied in Prop 52. In practice, it is very unlikely to change anything, since the Legislature has every reason to continue approving the hospital fees to get Medicare funds. But should some change occur, it removes their flexibility to adapt, requiring a two-thirds majority or a new proposition (which only get a reasonable response every four years). It’s also simply too wonky for a proposition, which should be simple enough for most voters to understand. This is a matter best left to the Legislature.

Prop 53: Requirement for state infrastructure projects over $2B to be voter approved

It’s already too hard to raise funds in California, largely thanks to Prop 13 requiring a two-thirds majority in both legislative houses to increase taxes. Prop 53 would only make it harder.

Prop 54: Requirement that before voting, bills be frozen and made public

Legislative transparency is an area where propositions can help balance voter needs with legislative priorities. Prop 54 requires bills to be posted online for 72 hours and requires recording of legislative proceedings (and allows political ads to use them). Much of the criticism of the bill concerns its financing by Charles Munger, Jr., a Republican who has supported moderate candidates. I’m typically skeptical of such lines of attack; ideas should be evaluated on their merits, not their supporters. This bill does benefit lobbyists and political advertisers, and may in some cases slow down our process, but like police bodycameras, the transparency is worth the costs.

Prop 55: Extension of income tax for high income earners

I was a bit hesitant on this one, as we wouldn’t need to extend this income tax (which was promised as temporary after the recession) if not for Prop 13. Passed in 1978, Prop 13

  1. Capped property taxes at 1%;
  2. Capped assessed property value increases at 2% per year; and
  3. Required a two-thirds majority in both legislative houses to increase taxes

This has starved the state of funds (especially for schools, primary benefactors of property taxes), incentivized homeowners to favor exclusionary zoning which drives up rents, and ties the hands of legislators looking to address problems with new revenue. The interests it’s entrenched make it unlikely to be repealed, which would require a new ballot proposition. Property, particularly land, is the most economically efficient tax base since its production is fixed and therefore can’t respond to tax levels like income or consumption do. Repealing Prop 13 and raising the state property tax would yield billions.

That said, I believe opportunities to raise taxes must be taken when available. California has many important projects, and taxes are a better mechanism than unfunded bond measures like Prop 51.

Prop 56: Increase of the tobacco tax by $2

Cigarette taxes are proven to reduce smoking, especially in teens considering taking up the harmful habit. Smoking has direct and indirect costs on society such as healthcare and lost worker productivity from tobacco-related health problems, respectively, justifying a cigarette tax as an efficient way to internalize such externalities.

Opposition raises legitimate questions around how the proceeds would be allocated (for example, 5% of post-replacement revenue for administration seems quite high, given tobacco taxes already exist), but ultimately the taxation itself is more important than the proceeds given tobacco’s cost on society.

Prop 57: Easier parole for nonviolent offenders

While this would ideally go through the legislative process, the scales are tilted so far against nonviolent criminals that making them eligible for parole is a positive. I side with Governor Brown on this. As an aside, see the official argument against the proposition for some over-the-top fearmongering.

Prop 58: Local control on how to teach English-learners

This is a wonky one. To quote the nonpartisan “It comes down to the pedagogical question, How should students, who are not fluent in English, best learn English?” I’m more compelled by this angle than arguments such as favoring bilingual education for English speakers, particularly considering rapid advances in translation technology. Per the research summarized, bilingual education either performs the same or better than English immersion: although the only randomized controlled trial (the gold standard of social science research) on the topic found no difference, five meta-analyses since 1985 all favored bilingual education. While the public would ideally vote on such a far-reaching matter armed with more conclusive evidence, this swayed me.

Prop 59: Symbolic advisory measure to overturn Citizens United

A very reluctant yes. Ballots shouldn’t be cluttered with measures that have no impact. If the US Congress wants to know what Californians think about Citizens United, they can look at the polls. But, if I have to give my opinion, I don’t want to say I approve of the decision. While my personal thoughts on campaign finance have changed recently due to Trump’s rise on the back of “organic” media instead of advertising, I still believe it to be a problem worth addressing.

Prop 60: Requirement for pornstars to wear condoms (during sex)

This is a solution in search of a problem; HIV hasn’t been transmitted in a porn film in over ten years, and porn stars have regular STD tests. Like prohibition of marijuana and prostitution, this excessive state control would lead to underground activity, which would ultimately be less safe. Theoretical benefits from modeling safe bedroom behavior aren’t worth it.

Prop 61: Prevention of state agencies from paying more than the VA for drugs

I’ve been trying to think about this bill as a step toward single-payer health insurance, which I believe would be much more efficient than the current massive hodgepodge of employer-sponsored healthcare, insurance companies, and Obamacare subsidies (though Obamacare was overall a positive step by insuring millions). With single-payer, drug companies would negotiate once with the US government and prices would be openly known. I support 61 because leveling prices between Medi-Cal and the VA takes us on a path toward that goal.

To be sure, there would be some short-term winners and losers. The VA could end up paying over $1B more as drug companies renegotiate prices with them, and Medi-Cal users could end up without medicines the drug companies won’t budge on (drug companies may even be extra petty in negotiations given their opposition to setting a precedent). But these are all problems with moving to a single-payer model too, on a much larger scale. A slow consolidation of prices and negotiations, even with their pains, makes single-payer more tenable by reducing the later pain.

Prop 62: Repeal of the death penalty

The death penalty is not only error-prone, but also more costly than life sentences. 62 also stops solitary confinement, which is clearly cruel and unusual punishment. We should not be in the business of killing people.

Prop 63: Stricter laws around ammunition

Here I again rely on the research, which is mixed but generally points to fewer guns = fewer gun deaths (see Australia). Regulating ammunition, making all gun theft felonies, and other changes put California even more at the forefront of gun regulation, which the literature suggests should make us safer.

Prop 64: Legalization of marijuana

Lifting marijuana prohibition will raise money for the state and improve safety of weed-smoking. While it won’t reduce the prison rolls much due to prior California laws, it sets the stage for more legalization across the country, where the pot-focused drug war wastes billions and destroys low-income communities (especially those of color). I was also worried about special interests like those that pushed Ohio’s law, but we seem to be doing this the right way. This is the proposition I’m most excited to vote on.

Prop 65: Diversion of bag fees from grocers to a state environmental fund

The underlying assertion behind 65 and 67 is that grocery bags harm the environment, and the costs of those harms are being paid for by people who don’t use them. This is known in economics as an externality, and the solution is to internalize it via a tax (specifically known as a Pigouvian tax). The proceeds of these taxes can then pay for the damage caused by the consumption of the damaging good, in this case the paper bag but more commonly including fossil fuels and pollutants.

Forcing grocery stores to charge for these bags, and then letting them keep the funds, leaves society without the funds to address the presumed damage of the bags. Turning over the funds to the state is the economically efficient way to internalize the externality, so it is a sensible funding source that should be supported.

I’d also say, I’m unsympathetic to grocery stores’ argument that they needed to keep the ten cents to pay for the bags themselves. There’s no law preventing them from charging more than the ten cents to recoup the costs (paper bags cost between 5 and 23 cents).

Prop 66: Rules speeding up death penalty procedures

As both 62 and 66 may pass, and the one of the two with more “yes” votes will supersede the other, anyone looking to repeal the death penalty should vote no on 66, virtually regardless of the content. That 66 speeds up the process, thereby increasing the likelihood of the state killing an innocent person, is extra reason to vote no.

Prop 67: Prohibition on plastic single-use carryout bags

Banning products should be a last resort reserved for products that severely harm users and/or others. Machine guns and heroin fall in this category; plastic bags do not. Internalizing the environmental damage from plastic bags would be responsible, and could be effected via a tax, even a high one. For example, I support increasing the cigarette tax this year (Prop 56) and effectively transforming the paper bag fee into a tax (Prop 65). Just as banning gasoline would go too far, so too would banning plastic bags.

How’d I compare?

  • I voted for 65% of the propositions (11 of 17)
  • I agreed with 73% of the CA Democratic Party’s recommendations (11 of 15; they had no stance on 61 and 65)
  • I agreed with 24% of the CA Republican Party’s recommendations (4 of 17)
  • I agreed with polls’ majority position for 53% of propositions (8 of 15; 55 and 65 lack polls)

While some of the matters would be better ignored (59) or decided by the Legislature (51), I’m generally excited for the opportunity to vote on these issues this year, and I look forward to hearing the results. If the polls are indicative, progressives will have some reason to celebrate.

Oh, and the Senate

Harris and Sanchez have very similar positions across many issues, including, Social Security, clean power, refugees, high-speed rail, criminal justice reform, and the national debt. However, I support Harris for three core reasons:

  1. Harris has proposed expanding programs like EITC and CTC, important stepping stones to a universal basic income, which I strongly support;
  2. While both candidates oppose TPP, Harris has had more pro-trade statements when discussing it. Harris’s criticisms are more on environmental grounds while Sanchez’s are on general trade and manufacturing ground. Economists agree that free trade is a net benefit to the US as well as developing countries, and the reality is that automation has had a far greater impact on manufacturing employment than globalization.
  3. Sanchez has a moderate voting record for a Democrat, so Harris is more likely to continue California’s liberal leadership in the Senate.

See my (more tentative) positions on SF measures here.

Economist. Founder and president of the UBI Center. Studied at MIT and UC Berkeley. YIMBY. Former Google data scientist.

Economist. Founder and president of the UBI Center. Studied at MIT and UC Berkeley. YIMBY. Former Google data scientist.