Tobacco giant Philip Morris announced Monday that it has gathered enough signatures to place an initiative on California's November ballot to abolish all local smoking bans and replace them with looser statewide standards.
The announcement raised the prospect of as many as five highly charged, petition-generated propositions going before voters.
With the deadline approaching for getting measures qualified for the November ballot, supporters of a plan to attack all forms of public funding for illegal immigrants say they will turn in their signatures next week.
Others measures that have qualified or appear to be headed for the same ballot include the "three strikes and you're out" criminal justice sentencing plan, an overhaul of the health insurance system and a 4% sales tax on gasoline to pay for mass transit.
The late surge in initiatives comes as something of a surprise. Early in the year, consultants involved in the initiative business believed that only the "three strikes" and gasoline tax proposals would be on the ballot.
But then Philip Morris quietly funded its signature-gathering campaign, while backers of the health insurance overhaul mounted a massive volunteer effort, supplemented at the end by paid gatherers and supported by organized labor. At the same time, proponents of the immigration measure mounted their largely volunteer effort.
At a Los Angeles news conference Monday, Ellen Merlo, a vice president for Philip Morris U.S.A., said the cigarette manufacturer's paid petition effort obtained 607,000 signatures of registered voters.
Those names will be submitted to county registrars of voters. Officials have until June 30 to verify that the initiative has the requisite 424,000 valid signatures.
Several people claimed they were misled by signature gatherers in the costly and sophisticated petition drive. Many complained that they thought they were signing a petition to ban smoking, when in fact it is a measure backed by the tobacco industry to knock down tougher local laws.
Acting Secretary of State Tony Miller issued warnings to the proponents and is continuing to investigate some of the complaints. But Miller said he doubts that the drive was so flawed that it will be deemed invalid.
Miller said a bigger problem may be time. He had directed initiative proponents to submit their signatures by April 22 to give his office and the counties time to count the signatures.
"I'm not saying it can't be done, but it is marginal," Miller said.
So far, no other cigarette manufacturer has joined the campaign. But Philip Morris, the nation's largest cigarette maker, spent $491,000 on the effort to get the measure on the ballot, Merlo said. The campaign is certain to cost millions of dollars, but she said Philip Morris has not decided how much to spend. The measure is also being backed by some bar, hotel and restaurant owners.
The initiative's goal is to abolish local anti-smoking ordinances, replacing them with a statewide standard that would, for example, allow smoking in 25% of a restaurant's seating area.
Under the initiative, restaurants and other businesses would have to meet certain ventilation standards in order to permit smoking. Health groups note, however, that those standards are not designed to counter the ill effects of secondhand smoke.
"This is an initiative that really does address the preferences and the rights of all Californians," said Merlo, who came to Los Angeles from Philip Morris' New York headquarters. "There are some people who do find tobacco objectionable and I do believe this initiative does address their concerns."
Jack Nicholl, the political consultant for health groups opposing the tobacco initiative, repeated his charge that petition gatherers tricked people into signing the measure by telling them that it was designed to restrict smoking.
"In order to even have a chance, they'll need to spend tens of millions," Nicholl said. "They'll have to so brainwash the public. I don't see how they can win it if we do an aggressive job of getting out the lie."
Other measures that may make it onto the November ballot include:
* The immigration measure, backed by Howard Ezell, a former Immigration and Naturalization Service official.
He said backers had obtained 560,000 signatures, but want to gather another 100,000 this week.
The initiative seeks to cut all public funding for illegal immigrants and would require local law enforcement agencies to help the INS in the effort to find and deport illegal immigrants.
In its most controversial provision, the measure would require schools to verify the immigration status of pupils and expel students whose parents cannot prove their legal status. Schools also would be required to report to law enforcement agencies the names of parents they believe are in the country illegally.
* The health care initiative, which would scrap the current health care system and replace it with one administered by the state. To finance the universal health care coverage, the health care measure envisions increases in business payroll taxes, personal income taxes, and a $1-a-pack tax added to cigarettes.
* The 4% gasoline sales tax. Sponsored by the Planning and Conservation League, the tax would fund various mass transit and earthquake retrofitting projects.
* The one citizen-generated initiative already certified by the secretary of state for the November ballot is the "three strikes" proposition, which would impose sentences of 25 years to life for criminals who commit a third felony after having committed two prior serious or violent felonies. The initiative mirrors a law passed by the Legislature and signed into law earlier this year.