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Proposition Losers Willing to Try Costly Process Again

Times Staff Writers

If conventional wisdom holds, all those insurers, all those trial lawyers and those tobacco companies that spent so much money on ballot measures only to see their efforts fail should want nothing more to do with the California ballot.

Not so, say these groups.

Despite laying out nearly $100 million collectively and ending up with nothing--except perhaps some public ill will--industry representatives from all three groups say that if the circumstances arise, they will be right back in the initiative fray.

And they are likely to be joined by others following the lessons of the health advocates, consumer groups and educators who were successful in Tuesday’s elections.

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“We surely would have some reluctance (to file another initiative),” said Peter Ingham, vice president and general counsel for State Farm Insurance. “But as a practical matter, it’s just about a necessity. . . . When your business is threatened, clearly, you can’t just sit by and let it happen.”

Not Discouraged

Larry Berg, director of USC’s Institute of Politics and Government, said the loss of money is not enough of a disincentive to discourage these groups from taking their issues directly to voters.

“When large interests or large numbers of individuals feel the governor and the Legislature are not being responsive to their needs, they will continue to go to the initiative process,” Berg said.

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“If you look at it in terms of just the $70 million spent on the insurance measures and you put that in the context of the value of the premiums (they collect) and the amount of business they do . . . it’s not really that much. It is an obscene amount. But in terms of what it costs them, it’s not that much.”

In Tuesday’s election--which followed the most expensive initiative campaign in the state’s history--three measures sponsored by the insurance industry were defeated, as were campaigns financed by trial lawyers and tobacco companies.

But other groups did well. A consumer organization with ties to Ralph Nader succeeded in passing Proposition 103, an initiative that proposes to radically alter the state’s insurance system. Health organizations pushed through Proposition 99 to raise cigarette taxes, and California’s education establishment won voter approval for a measure, Proposition 98, that sets minimum levels of school funding.

Some see the results as evidence that voters are discerning and that money alone cannot buy votes.

“One of the byproducts of so much political advertising in recent years is that voters have developed an ability to see through it, to see it for what it is,” said Richard Ross, a Sacramento-based political consultant who directed the successful campaign for Proposition 98. “Ten years ago, the tobacco tax would have lost because voters would have seen all those scare commercials and been scared off. No more.”

Possibly Out of Control

But other experts and even a few initiative sponsors acknowledge that the process has gotten out of hand, that complex issues are being sold through oversimplified television campaigns and that voters often go to the polls with only a vague idea of the decisions they are about to make.

“Traditionally, the process has been used as a mechanism for voters to blow off steam,” said Steve Barrow, a lobbyist for Common Cause. “Now it is increasingly becoming a mechanism for special interests or businesses to develop a better business climate.”

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Alan Siegel, chairman and chief executive officer of Siegel & Gale, which specializes in teaching corporations to communicate simply, conducted extensive polls in California and other states on Election Day and said he found that voters often were confused.

“They either don’t vote (for particular measures) or they do so with anger and simply vote no,” Siegel said. “I’d say there is a strong sense that the ballot was sufficiently complex so that a lot of people found it difficult to cope with and didn’t really understand what they were asked to vote for.”

Ted Costa, a spokesman for anti-tax crusader Paul Gann, who supported Proposition 102, the unsuccessful AIDS measure on the November ballot, acknowledged that there are problems but said the best way to reform the process is to “reform the Legislature.”

“Yeah, it’s a bad system, but take a look at the alternative, relying on the Legislature,” said Costa, chief aide to anti-tax crusader Paul Gann. “Look at the mess it created.”

State Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig, a sponsor of the successful school funding measure, Proposition 98, agreed that the process is “out of control,” but said it still serves as a “safety valve” for those who can’t get what they need from the governor or Legislature.

“From our perspective, it’s a good way of resolving something when you think you have the public on your side and you aren’t getting any satisfaction . . .,” Honig said.

While a number of groups are calling for major reforms in the aftermath of Tuesday’s extraordinarily long statewide ballot--29 propositions--most acknowledge that the initiative remains popular and significant changes may be politically difficult to achieve.

Eugene Lee, a professor of political science at UC Berkeley and former director of its Institute of Government Studies, said the Legislature has traditionally been loath to tinker with the initiative process. “There is a belief that this is very much ingrained in the California political philosophy and the Legislature would be fearful of taking it on,” Lee said.

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Gov. George Deukmejian reflected those fears in telling reporters the morning after the election that “Californians really will continue to very jealously guard the right of individuals or groups to place proposals on the ballot. I don’t think they would stand for any kind of a major change in the process.”

The League of Women Voters recently sponsored two bills in the Legislature that would have required a legislative review of all initiatives before they are finalized and would have given the Legislature a chance to act on the proposals before they are submitted to voters. Both failed.

Even so, Carol Federighi, president of the league’s California organization, said prospects for reform may have improved as the result of the problems voters encountered this year. “People were dismayed by the length of the ballot, by the complexity of the ballot. The amount of money that was spent was obscene. . . . Anyone with enough money and an idea can hire a signature-gathering firm and put a measure on the ballot.”

For now, at least, that is exactly what many of these groups intend to do.

“I don’t favor the initiative process,” said Stan Zachs, chairman of Zenith Insurance and president of the Assn. of California Insurance Companies. “I favor the Legislature and the governor (acting) because it’s their job to make policy. But given the fact that the governor and the Legislature didn’t act and the initiatives were filed against the insurance industry, we had no alternative but to try to respond.”

Joe Remcho, general counsel for the California Trial Lawyers Assn., a major sponsor of the unsuccessful insurance Proposition 100, said the initiative is so much a part of California politics that his and other groups will not abandon the process despite their losses this year.

“The process has become so accepted that when we can’t work it out we simply go to the initiative,” he said.


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