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$23 a Vote : Insurers Spent $55.87 Million on Prop. 104; All Initiatives Cost a Record $129.1 Million

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

In its unsuccessful effort to win voter approval of no-fault auto insurance last November, insurers shelled out $23 for each vote they received, propelling the measure into the record books as the costliest initiative campaign in California history.

Final, official spending figures released Thursday by the Fair Political Practices Commission show that $129.1 million was spent overall on ballot measures in the 1988 general election--also a record--with more than $100 million of that coming from competing factions in the battle over insurance reform.

The campaigns that contributed the most toward breaking the spending records--the effort to enact no-fault insurance through Proposition 104, the trial lawyers’ competing Proposition 100 and the tobacco industry’s drive to defeat the Proposition 99 tobacco tax--all went down to defeat.

“This is an instance where special interests weren’t able to buy the election,” FPPC Chairman John Larson said. “The voters this time weren’t swayed by the intense sales pitches of the insurance companies, trial lawyers or the tobacco industry,” which together spent the bulk of the money last fall.

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Until last November, the record for spending on all state ballot measures during a single election was $32.9 million set in 1984, when voters approved the state lottery, one of seven proposals on the statewide ballot. The most previously spent on a single ballot measure was the $10.96 million expended in June, 1986, on the successful Proposition 51 campaign, the initiative underwritten by business groups and insurers that rewrote liability laws in California.

Insurers spent $55.87 million on Proposition 104, which was defeated by a ratio of 3 to 1. The initiative received 2.39 million votes in its favor--or $23.37 per vote.

In the case of the trial lawyers’ competing initiative, Proposition 100, supporters spent $16.5 million. It was defeated by a margin of 18 percentage points. The only one of five insurance reform proposals that won voter approval in November was Proposition 103, the Ralph Nader-backed initiative on which supporters spent just over $3 million. Opponents, primarily the insurance industry, spent a combined total of $14.99 million in an effort to defeat Propositions 100 and 103.

Larry Berg, director of USC’s Institute of Politics and Government and a recognized authority on the initiative process, said the escalating cost of qualifying measures for the ballot contributed to the record spending levels. Just gathering the required number of signatures on petitions can cost upwards of $1 million, making the process available mainly only to big business interests, he said.

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Berg called the spending figures “absolutely obscene,” noting that the cost of the initiative battle eclipsed the amount spent nationwide by Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and President Bush in the fall presidential campaign.

“I’m not sure anything couldn’t be qualified for the ballot if you’ve got the money,” Berg said. “That doesn’t mean they get approved. . . . Voters do tend to vote down things where money becomes the issue.”

The most lopsided example of campaign spending arose in the battle over tobacco taxes, in which supporters of Proposition 99 spent $1.84 million against more than $21.2 million spent by the tobacco industry. The measure easily won.

The industry’s campaign was heavily criticized for its graphic commercials in which viewers were warned that the tax would raise money for organized crime and go to arming street gangs.

In releasing the new figures, Larson said many of the campaigns “stretched the truth” and give urgency to constitutionally questionable proposals that would limit the content of political advertising.

A top official in the insurance industry’s campaign said the emphasis on spending “doesn’t get to the heart of the matter.” John Crosby, who headed the industry’s campaign organization, said the amount spent trying to defeat Proposition 103 and pass the industry’s proposals “blanches against the $4 billion we stand to lose in the first year if 103 goes into effect.”

Portions of the initiative have been stayed pending a review by the state Supreme Court of its constitutionality.

“The concern I have is that almost anybody is able to get on the ballot with a proposition that may even be unconstitutional,” Crosby said. “Yet you have to contest them and challenge them with whatever funds you can raise. . . . Unfortunately, I think it could all be repeated again.”

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On the remaining two insurance initiatives, backers of Proposition 101 spent $5.49 million, while supporters of Proposition 106, an initiative to limit attorney fees, spent $3.68 million. Both were defeated.

Backers of Proposition 98, the successful school finance measure, spent $5.72 million and supporters of two AIDS initiatives, Propositions 96 and 102, were evenly matched at just over $1 million each.


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