1996 Expected to Be Boom Year for Initiatives


In what is shaping up to be a boom year for California's initiative industry, promoters of so-called direct democracy have submitted a dizzying array of measures for next year's statewide ballots.

Many voters already know that they most likely will be called on to decide whether to end affirmative action in government hiring, contracting and college admissions next November.

But as the initiative season opens, major political players are weighing measures that would raise the minimum wage, expand gambling, cap campaign contributions, add criminal sanctions and variously raise and cut taxes.

And, in an only-in-California political idea, one potential initiative would prohibit Sea World and other such parks from displaying living marine mammals captured in the oceans.

Dubbed the "Free Willy initiative," the measure has support from the producers of the "Free Willy" movies, as well as cetacean and pinniped rights activists. Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar) is its proponent. He is one of at least five elected officials considering using initiatives to place pet projects before the electorate.

Anti-Lawyer Initiatives May Spark a Tort War

Gov. Pete Wilson, deeply in debt from his failed presidential campaign, is reconsidering placing a tax cut on the ballot. But citizen-generated initiatives are on the March ballot, and three are aimed at one of California's most powerful interests--trial lawyers.

"This could be a donnybrook," said consultant Bill Zimmerman, campaign manager for the three anti-attorney initiatives. They would limit plaintiffs' lawyers' fees, create a no-fault auto insurance system in which the right to sue over accidents would be limited, and restrict lawsuits by stockholders against publicly traded companies.

The main proponents are Silicon Valley millionaire Tom Proulx, author Andrew Tobias and the remnants of Voter Revolt, which promoted Proposition 103, the 1988 initiative that sought to lower insurance rates but has been tied up in legal proceedings ever since.

Explanations for the flurry of proposed initiatives range from an improving economy to general voter frustration. Although the November election will be dominated by the presidential campaign, there will be no statewide races for U.S. Senate or constitutional offices, so campaign donors may have more money to spend on initiatives.

"We're a mega-state and there are lots of axes to grind," said Ken Masterton, who specializes in mobilizing volunteers to gather signatures to place liberal measures on ballots.

There is also a sort of multiplier effect at work. Groups seeking to defeat measures often counter with initiatives of their own. That is happening in the lawyers' coming Tort War.

Trial lawyers intend to spend as much as $10 million to defeat the anti-lawyer initiatives in March. But they have a hedge--two initiatives headed for the November ballot to repeal two of the three initiatives that might win voter approval in March. To counter the lawyers' two counter-initiatives, Zimmerman has filed yet another anti-lawyer initiative for the November ballot.

"We aren't looking to start an initiative war, but I guess we're in one," said Bill Carrick, the trial lawyers' political consultant.

By the time it's over, both sides may spend a combined $50 million, Zimmerman said. That would be half of what was spent in the 1988 insurance initiative war, an all-time record.

But $50 million still would be a huge sum, considering that initiatives grew from the political reform movement of the early 1900s to weaken special interest domination of California politics by giving voters the right to take legislating into their own hands.

As if a Tort War weren't enough, Palm Springs gaming interests are considering proposals to expand casino gambling. Sacramento political consultant Charles Cavalier, who is representing the Palm Springs group, said "there will be a push, very definitely."

Cavalier also is managing an anti-crime proposal by Fresno photographer Mike Reynolds, who promoted last year's successful "three strikes" initiative to increase criminal sentences after his daughter was murdered. Reynolds' new measure would increase sentences for criminals who use guns.

Victim's Father Pushes for Jury Reforms

The other major crime initiative being contemplated for next November's ballot has the endorsement of Fred Goldman, father of murder victim Ronald L. Goldman, as well as prosecutors. That measure would permit juries to convict criminal defendants by 10-2 verdicts rather unanimous jury verdicts.

For all the activity now, however, most proposed initiatives won't make it onto the ballot. It is a huge and costly task to gather the hundreds of thousands of signatures needed to qualify them. If they do make it on the ballot, the campaigns cost millions, and even well-funded campaigns lose. Californians traditionally are skeptical of promoters' claims and reject most initiatives.

When they do pass, initiatives often end up in court, where, occasionally, they are gutted, as happened recently when U.S. District Judge Mariana Pfaelzer threw out much of Proposition 187, the 1994 anti-illegal immigration measure. Despite all that, promoters, lawyers, consultants and entrepreneurs who profit from direct democracy seem undeterred.

"The polls show people want some of this stuff," said Mike Arno, of American Petition Consultants, which specializes in placing conservative initiatives on the ballot. "If the public is yearning for something and the Legislature is not giving it to them, it's great that the initiative process is there."

Arno predicts that eight, maybe nine citizen-generated measures will be on the November ballot. Others say there could be a dozen. With the five citizen initiatives already on the March ballot, 1996 could approach the level of 1990, when voters decided the fates of a record 18 initiatives. As it is, next year will easily exceed the seven that were on the 1992 ballots, and the six that went to voters last year.

San Francisco attorney Barry Fadem, an initiative specialist, said he sees as many as 10 making it onto November's ballot. "That's a big year, a very big year," he said.

GOP Seeks to End Affirmative Action

In all, promoters have submitted 58 potential initiatives to the attorney general's office for initial review. Most lack the organization and money needed to place their ideas on the ballot. But several are capable of raising the $1 million it takes to hire armies of petition circulators to buttonhole voters at markets, movie houses and malls.

The California Republican Party is the driving force behind the initiative to end affirmative action in government, hoping it will draw out conservative voters and help the Republican presidential nominee defeat President Clinton in California.

"Republicans in the state of California are going to beat [Clinton] over the head with it," state GOP official John Peschong said, noting that Republicans used the "three strikes" initiative and Proposition 187 to help Wilson and other Republican candidates win election last year.

Taking a page from their rivals, the state Democratic Party is sure to back the California Labor Federation-AFL-CIO's initiative to raise the minimum wage from $4.25 to $5 in 1997, and $5.75 in 1998.

"This is a good issue for middle-class Americans. This is a good issue for Democrats. We're going to put serious effort into it," said Steve Smith, spokesman for the California Democratic Party.

Several other measures being contemplated also could attract liberal voters, including one to strengthen recycling laws, another that would ban a radioactive dump at Ward Valley, and yet another to reimpose upper-income tax brackets on the wealthiest Californians. Local government would get the money.

Former Los Angeles Assemblyman Mike Roos, director of the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, has proposed raising cigarette taxes 50 cents a pack and alcohol taxes a dime a drink. The estimated $2.4 billion that such "sin taxes" would raise annually would go to public schools.

Moneyed proponents of tax-funded vouchers for private school tuition appear to be holding off. But Children's Rights 2000, a new Los Angeles reform group funded by Hollywood and business figures, is pushing an initiative with some education support to shift money from administration to classrooms, mandating that 95% be spent on students, teachers and classroom equipment, such as computers. The computer clause may attract Silicon Valley money. Children's Rights also is contemplating a cigarette tax to finance after-school tutorial programs.

From the more conservative side, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., named for the coauthor of the property tax-slashing Proposition 13 in 1978, is proposing new limits on local government's authority to raise taxes.

Former Reagan Administration economist Arthur Laffer and Assemblyman Howard Kaloogian (R-Carlsbad) are pushing a flat tax. The measure also would ban further tax increases on alcohol, cigarettes and horse racing--which may attract money from those industries.

Although most successful proponents hire paid signature gatherers to place measures on the ballots, a few promoters still use volunteers.

California Common Cause expects to submit signatures by the end of this month for a measure limiting campaign contributions in state races to no more than $500. California has no cap on campaign costs or contributions, though past initiative promoters have tried but either lost at the polls or had their measures struck down by courts.

Another proposal that would use volunteers is the "Free Willy initiative." If this measure passes, Sea World, Marine World and similar parks could no longer put on public display killer whales, dolphins or other marine mammals that have been "ripped from their environment," Katz said.

The parks--Katz calls them "fish tanks"--could continue to display animals they already have, as well as ones that have been injured and nursed back to health or those that have been bred in captivity.

Sea World and its corporate parent Anheuser-Busch will fight the measure. John A. Hodges, general counsel to the Marine Mammal Coalition, which includes Sea World and similar facilities, called the initiative an "attempt to throw a monkey wrench into facilities that serve an important public service."

Katz expects to rely on support from Hollywood figures, including Lauren Shuler-Donner and Richard Donner, producers of the "Free Willy" movies, as well as volunteers from animal rights groups.

"It's going to be a good battle," said Peter Wallerstein, president of the Whale Rescue Team, an environmental group based in Topanga Canyon. "If we're successful in California, we're going to go state by state."


Approved Ballot Measures

Eleven measures will be on the March 26 ballot.

Placed on ballot by Legislature:

* Proposition 192. Provides $2-billion bond for freeway earthquake retrofitting.

* Proposition 193. Alters inheritance tax law.

* Proposition 194. Denies unemployment benefits to prisoners who have prison jobs.

* Proposition 195. Makes murders committed during carjackings and murder of jurors capital crimes.

* Proposition 196. Makes murders committed during drive-by shootings capital crimes.

* Proposition 197. Repeals significant portions of a 1990 initiative that banned hunting of mountain lions.

Placed on ballot by voters:

* Proposition 198. Creates open primaries, allowing voters to vote for the candidate of their choice regardless of party affiliation. Sponsored by state Sen. Tom Campbell (R-Stanford).

* Proposition 199. Repeals local government rent control ordinances on mobile home parks. Sponsored by mobile home park owners.

* Proposition 200. Creates a no-fault auto insurance system. This is one of three anti-attorney measures on the ballot sponsored by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Tom Proulx.

* Proposition 201. Limits the right of shareholders to sue publicly traded corporations. Sponsored by Proulx.

* Proposition 202. Limits attorneys' fees. Sponsored by Proulx.

Source: California secretary of state

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