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Last-minute advice on state ballot measures

The columnist's take on 11 propositions for voters heading to the polls Tuesday.

George Skelton

Capitol Journal

10:41 PM PST, November 4, 2012

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SACRAMENTO — If you're still scratching your head over the long list of state ballot propositions, here's a voter's guide.

It's not to be confused with those slick home mailers, often produced by political profiteers masquerading under some phony name such as "Californians for the American Way and Cute Puppies." Don't even bring that stuff into the house.

Half of you probably already have voted by mail. But for the other half who will cast ballots the old-fashioned way Tuesday, here's my take on the 11 props.

VOTER GUIDE: California's 2012 propositions

None were products of the Legislature, incidentally. All emerged from the signature-collecting initiative process.

•Prop. 30 is Gov. Jerry Brown's Band-Aid on the bleeding state budget. It would temporarily raise income taxes on the highest earners — retroactive to Jan. 1 — and bump the sales tax by a quarter-cent, raising $6 billion annually.

This isn't about Brown. It isn't about "Sacramento politicians." It's about whether to cut $5.9 billion more out of public education, from kindergarten through the universities. A yes vote means no cuts. A no vote brings out the machete.

The measure isn't perfect, but it's the best option for now.

•Prop. 31 is an attempt at state budgeting reform and making Sacramento more efficient. It also tries to restore a speck of local government control that flowed to Sacramento when property taxes were sharply cut decades ago.

It offers some sound ideas but more that are questionable. Most troubling, it would allow counties to weaken state environmental and workplace protections. This measure needs a lot more work.

•Prop. 32 would prohibit unions and corporations from using payroll deductions for political purposes, even if an employee consented. But basically only unions do this, not corporations.

The measure is cynically billed as "The Stop Special Interest Money Now Act." It's actually about one crowd of interests on the right attempting to cripple a rival interest, labor, using $11 million in secret laundered money. It reeks.

•Prop. 33 is another special-interest offering. Mercury Insurance founder George Joseph wants to lure customers from competitors by allowing them to bring along their "continuous-coverage" discounts.

But insurers could charge higher premiums for motorists whose policies had lapsed because, say, they hadn't owned a car. It's too complicated for mortals. And it's why we have an elected state commissioner to regulate insurance.

•Prop. 34 would abolish the death penalty and replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole. But, in essence, California's death penalty was eliminated long ago. We're paying for it, just not getting it.

There have been only 13 executions in the last 34 years and none since 2006. There are 729 killers housed on San Quentin's death row, living in single-bunk cells with TVs and extensive yard privileges.

The question is not whether we should have capital punishment. We should. But we're apparently incapable. So give up the costly charade. Double-bunk the murderers with other inmates, make them work and save $130 million a year. Stop dumping tax money down a rat hole.

•Prop. 35 attempts to fight sex slavery. It would significantly increase sentences and expand the definition of human trafficking to include pornography depicting child sex. Rules of evidence would be changed to bar a defendant from bringing up an alleged victim's sexual history.

This proposal is just off target. California and the federal government already have tough penalties. The feds do most of the prosecuting because victims usually are transported across borders. The measure could endanger a defendant's right to a fair trial.

This is the kind of major law change that should be produced through public hearings and expert testimony in the legislative process.

•Prop. 36 would apply logic and cost-effectiveness to California's three-strikes sentencing law. A third strike would need to be violent or serious before a career criminal could be sentenced to 25 years to life.

Now, a third-striker could get life for stealing a loaf of bread. Under Prop. 36, he'd be treated as a two-striker and serve double the normal time, with some exceptions. If he'd been previously convicted of murder, rape or child molesting, the 25-to-life sentence still could be doled out.

Reducing these sentences to more reasonable lengths would save an estimated $70 million. Grab it.

•Prop. 37 would require labeling of food products that contain genetically modified ingredients. But no one is arguing that such products are harmful.

This seems to be an almost cult-like cause. There are two major problems: Grocers would be responsible for the correct labeling, a harassment they don't need. And opportunistic lawyers could make bundles by dragging grocers into court. This measure isn't cooked.

•Prop. 38 is civil rights attorney Molly Munger's alternative to the governor's Prop. 30. Her proposal would raise income taxes on practically everyone — all but the very poorest — and generate $10 billion annually, mostly for schools.

But the taxes wouldn't kick in soon enough to help schools during the current academic year. Even if it passed and received more votes than Brown's, education still would need to be slashed by $5.9 billion. Schools need help now.

•Prop. 39 involves complex corporate tax law. But here's the simple heart of it: The measure would end an illogical tax incentive for out-of-state companies not to hire workers or build facilities in California.

The state would gain $1 billion annually, roughly half for retrofitting public buildings with alternative energy and the other half for regular government services, including education. It's fair and sensible.

•Prop. 40 would ratify state Senate districts drawn by an independent citizens' commission. Failure of the measure would require a costly redo. This is the easiest "yes" vote on the ballot.

george.skelton@latimes.com