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Some thoughts on four ballot measures

Props. 33 (car insurance), 35 (human trafficking) and 37 (genetically modified food) are misguided, but Prop. 40 (redistricting) is a must.

George Skelton

Capitol Journal

6:06 PM PDT, October 28, 2012

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SACRAMENTO — It's time to stop vacillating. Election day is almost here. There are still a few loose ends to straighten out on the California ballot.

Things such as auto insurance, sex slavery and food labeling. Also an obscure legislative redistricting measure.

Here are some thoughts — mostly negative — on four measures, in numerical order:

•Proposition 33: It's sponsored by one very narrow interest.

Mercury Insurance founder George Joseph is bankrolling this initiative — with $16.4 million at last count — in an effort to steal customers from other insurers. He wants to allow motorists to bring along their "continuous coverage" discounts.

Problem is, an insurance company could charge higher premiums for motorists whose policy had lapsed because, say, they hadn't owned a car or had been sick. However, a guy whose insurance had expired while he was laid off or on active military duty would still be considered continuously insured.

It's complicated. And this is the sort of regulating we pay an elected state insurance commissioner to handle. If he trips up, the governor and Legislature can step in.

A similar version of Prop. 33 was on the ballot in 2010. It lost by four percentage points.

I was suspicious then. And I still am.

Voter guide: 2012 California Propositions

•Prop. 35: This is about fighting sex slavery. And who can be against that?

But some fight strategies are smarter than others. This one seems clumsy.

The initiative would significantly increase sentences and fines for human trafficking. It also would expand the definition of trafficking to include the dissemination of pornography depicting child sex.

Rules of evidence would be changed to bar a defendant from citing an alleged victim's sexual history, such as prostitution. That raises questions about a fair trial.

Those convicted would have to register as sex offenders. The registry already is bulging and unwieldy.

But let's consider those sentences — up to life for forced sex trafficking of a minor. California is starting to emerge from a binge of tough sentencing and realizing that some of these long incarcerations have been both needless and unaffordable. We should not be turning back in that direction.

California and the federal government already have fairly stiff penalties for sex slavers. The feds handle most prosecuting because victims often are transported across state and international borders. In fact, according to the legislative analyst, only 18 sex traffickers were incarcerated in state prisons as of last March.

This measure was the product of former Facebook executive Chris Kelly, an unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic attorney general nomination in 2010, and Daphne Phung, a financial analyst who was inspired by a TV documentary on human trafficking.

I'd feel more comfortable if they'd taken their ideas to the Capitol rather than the ballot box. Such important changes in our criminal justice system should be run through the legislative process with expert testimony and public hearings.

The pair would have found a long line of politicians volunteering to join them in waging war on sex slavery.

Meanwhile, maybe we could do a better job enforcing existing laws.

•Prop. 37: Food labeling. It seems a little nutty, pun intended.

This measure would require labeling of food products that contain genetically modified ingredients.

No one in the campaign debate seems to be arguing that genetically modified food is definitely dangerous. Prop. 37 would demand that it be labeled anyway.

But not all. There would be bushels of exemptions. Restaurant food, for example. And booze.

So what's wrong with a consumer knowing whether the food being eyeballed has been genetically modified? Nothing. But is it really so important that we must harass the grocer who would be responsible for the correct labeling? Especially the mom-and-pop grocer, the few who are left.

Last year, 88% of corn and 94% of all soybeans produced in the United States was genetically altered, according to the legislative analyst. Yet most of us probably didn't know that and survived.

The analyst wrote that: "The measure prohibits the use of terms such as 'natural,' 'naturally made,' 'naturally grown' and 'all natural' in the labeling and advertising of [genetically engineered] foods.

"Given the way the measure is written, there is a possibility that these restrictions would be interpreted by the courts to apply to some processed foods regardless of whether they are genetically engineered."

It's more complicated than waterfowl hunting regulations.

Then there's this full-employment act for lawyers: They could sue in court for enforcement of the law and be awarded "reasonable costs." There goes the last mom-and-pop grocer.

This is very confusing. What if a hunter shoots a goose that has feasted on genetically modified corn. Is he required to label the bird before giving it to an orphanage? And is it too late in life for me to become a lawyer to sue the wildlife refuge?

This measure is for the birds — a solution looking for a problem.

•Prop. 40. Vote yes on this one if you don't any other.

The Republican Party put this referendum on the ballot during a brief attempt to overturn the honest redrawing of Senate districts by an independent citizens commission. Then the GOP backed off and no longer opposes the redistricting plan.

But you still need to vote yes to ratify the districts that already are being used in this election. Otherwise, the state Supreme Court would have to concoct new maps, consuming more time and tax money.

It's another measure that shouldn't even be on the ballot.

Voter guide: 2012 California Propositions

george.skelton@latimes.com