Capitol Journal

A voter guide to California's boring but important ballot propositions

George Skelton's voter guide to the boring but potentially game-changing propositions on the California ballot

Six state propositions are on the ballot and none are sexy. All are snoozers. But each is significant.

Some, in fact, are game-changers.

Why else would the medical profession and insurance companies be spending well over $100 million to beat back Propositions 45 and 46?

Prop. 47 would punish handgun thieves with a figurative slap on the wrist.

Prop. 48 would set a precedent by allowing an Indian tribe to build a Vegas-style casino off the reservation in an urban area.

Props. 1 and 2 have nothing in common except a simple word: "save." One measure is about saving water, the other tax money. And the weak link is saving Gov. Jerry Brown from having to talk about the fourth term he is seeking while conveniently stumping instead for these props as if they were twins.

Here's my voter guide:

• Prop. 1 would authorize $7.5 billion in bonds for badly needed water projects. It wouldn't help during the current drought, but would prepare for future dry spells.

The money would be spent for the kinds of community projects that California should have been heavily engaged in long ago, rather than relying on massive, super-expensive facilities to transfer water from one region to another. Call it stealing.

There would be state matching money for capturing storm water, recharging aquifers, decontaminating groundwater and recycling wastewater.

More controversial is $2.7 billion for dam building. But critics ignore the fact that dams also provide flood control and recreation.

Prop. 1 is an easy yes.

• Prop. 2 would force Sacramento politicians to save tax money for an economic rainy day.

To be precise, 1.5% of general fund revenue and all capital gains receipts exceeding 8% of the general fund would be salted away.

The purpose is to reduce the roller-coaster effect of revenue flow during booms and busts. A more effective solution would be to reform California's tax system. But that would require too much courage for these timid politicians.

Meanwhile, Prop. 2 is another no-brainer yes.

Prop. 45 would allow the state insurance commissioner to regulate premium rates for certain medical plans: those covering individuals and companies with fewer than 50 employees.

Since 1988, the commissioner has been approving home and auto insurance rates. And that has worked out well for consumers.

Opponents have raised more than $56 million, mainly from four big insurance companies. Their TV pitch is that Prop. 45 entrusts too much power in one politician. But at least he is elected and accountable to voters. The insurance companies are accountable mainly to their bottom lines.

Also opposed are unelected government appointees who administer Obamacare in California and worry that the commissioner would interfere in their negotiations with insurers.

But if an elected official can control rising premium rates, he should be allowed to. A close call, but a yes.

Prop. 46 would return the limit on medical malpractice pain-and-suffering payouts to the same dollar value it was in 1975. Inflation has greatly eroded it.

Doctors, hospitals and insurers have raised more than $55 million to kill the measure. They claim it would cause healthcare costs to skyrocket. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office, however, calculates the increased cost as practically infinitesimal: less than 0.5%.

Back in 1975, then-Gov. Brown and the Legislature set the cap on noneconomic damage awards at $250,000. If that had been adjusted annually for inflation, it would be $1.1 million today. That's where Prop. 46 would reset it.

Opposition ads are demonizing trial lawyers, contending Prop. 46 is all about enriching them. But it's really about securing justice for malpractice victims, who now have difficulty hiring lawyers because the potential awards are so low.

The measure also does two other things. It would require drug and alcohol testing of hospital doctors. And to fight pain pill addiction, it would force doctors to use a state database that tracks patients' prescription histories.

It's long past time to bring the medical malpractice cap into the 21st century. And there's nothing wrong with requiring hospital doctors to undergo drug testing, as pilots and bus drivers do. Controlling pain pill addiction through modern technology also makes sense.

Prop. 47 would reduce the penalty for personal use of most hard drugs — like cocaine and heroin — from a possible felony to always a misdemeanor. OK, perhaps.

More significantly, however, the measure would lower to a misdemeanor other crimes deemed nonviolent and nonserious, such as petty theft, shoplifting, receiving stolen property, writing bad checks and forgery. If the value were less than $950, it would always be a misdemeanor.

Any savings from less incarceration would be earmarked for improved mental health and drug treatment programs.

But most handguns are worth less than $950. Steal one and it's only a hand slap? That's too big a flaw. No way on this Prop.

Prop. 48 would ratify a compact negotiated by Brown allowing the North Fork tribe in the Sierra foothills to build a casino down in the San Joaquin Valley on busy Highway 99 near Madera.

When Californians voted to allow Indian casinos 14 years ago, we were promised the gambling halls would be kept on reservations.

If Vegas-type casinos are now going to be permitted in California cities, we should take away the Indians' monopoly and allow all interests and ethnicities to own them.

Prop. 48 would set a bad precedent.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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