Nothing on the November ballot has better intentions than Proposition 95, the Hunger and Homelessness Funding Initiative. But its right goals are swamped by its wrong, and potentially costly, approach to the problems of the homeless.
Neither side in the campaign denies that the steady growth of California’s homeless population is a sad and serious problem. Their argument is over the proposition’s formula.
Proposition 95 would create a public “Corporation for California” to disburse an estimated $50 million to $90 million per year to local governments and nonprofit social agencies that help the homeless. Its proponents say the measure will cost taxpayers nothing because the money will come from fines imposed on slumlords and unsanitary food establishments. In fact, most of the fines would be paid not by villainous slumlords, but by owners of food markets and restaurants found in violation of the state’s health regulations.
Under current practice, inspectors impose fines only for the most egregious or persistent violations of health and housing laws. Landlords or food outlets most often get warnings with a deadline for cleaning up or repairing violations. Proposition 95 would take away much of an inspector’s discretion, require that landlords or businesses be cited for violations on the spot, the way motorists who break driving laws get tickets from traffic cops. The maximum fine would be $250, and--again, like traffic fines--a violator could appeal any citation through the courts. It is unclear whether Proposition 95’s appeals system would result in even more work for the state’s overburdened court system, as opponents claim. But it would raise costs for small restaurants and food stores, and eventually their customers. Also a funding system that relies on fines is inherently unstable.
One of Proposition 95’s supporters, Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, argues that firm health-code enforcement is preferable to the “lazy” relationship that now exists between inspectors and business. Reiner may have a point. Certainly it is disconcerting to see groups that represent and license health inspectors, like the California Environmental Health Assn., openly campaigning against Proposition 95. But the relationship between inspectors and industry is an issue to be dealt with separately, not through Proposition 95.
Among Proposition 95’s most vociferous opponents are several supermarket chains who argue that they would bear the cost of social programs that all Californians should pay for. We agree and, like the California Grocers Assn., urge voters concerned about homelessness to vote for Proposition 84, a bond act that will raise $300 million for housing programs. Homelessness is a problem the National Academy of Sciences has correctly called a “national disgrace.” But Proposition 95 is not the way to solve it. We recommend a no vote.