Sponsors of Proposition 10, the Nov. 3 ballot initiative to increase cigarette taxes by 50 cents a pack, declared a razor-thin victory Wednesday.
The opposition, known as the Committee Against Unfair Taxes, which was financed chiefly by multimillion-dollar contributions from the tobacco industry, conceded defeat.
Actor-director Rob Reiner, who led the campaign to approve Proposition 10, declared it a winner as the margin of votes in favor of the initiative continues to rise.
The measure is now ahead by 57,070 votes out of more than 7.6 million cast. On election day, Proposition 10 led by only about 13,000 votes with about 850,000 absentee and other late ballots uncounted. About a third of those remain to be counted, mostly from Los Angeles and San Francisco, which Reiner said "have been pretty good to us."
As these were tallied, Proposition 10's margin of approval had improved to 0.8% as of Wednesday, one of the narrowest apparent victories in state history.
Beth Miller, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Bill Jones, noted that "as more absentee [votes] come in, the more political consultants are able to draw a conclusion" that Proposition 10 would win. Counties must file their final tallies to Jones by Dec. 1.
Proposition 10 calls for the increase in cigarette taxes to begin Jan. 1, taking the state excise tax from 37 to 87 cents a pack. Higher levies on snuff and other tobacco products will start July 1.
The about $750 million a year in new revenue would help finance a variety of health, day care and other programs for California infants and preschoolers.
The projects would be administered by a state commission and satellite commissions in all 58 counties. The volunteer commissioners could finance existing, underfunded programs or select new ones.
In Los Angeles County, the Board of Supervisors has already begun debating who would serve on the local commission. The initiative requires at least one supervisor per county.
A euphoric Reiner called Proposition 10's apparent outcome a "victory for the children" and predicted that when all the ballots are counted, "we'll be over 60,000 votes [ahead]."
"This is the greatest high I've had, aside from the birth of my three children," he said.
In an interview, Reiner said he had anticipated a stiff fight from the tobacco industry, but "I didn't expect what it [turned out to be]. They will have spent in excess of $40 million. We probably spent close to $6 million."
He also said he is considering taking the California program nationwide.
"There's been a lot of inquiries from around the country. California is a bellwether state. There [are] usually national implications of what we do in California," Reiner said.
Matt Taggart, spokesman for the anti-Proposition 10 campaign, acknowledged that there are not enough uncounted ballots to overturn the apparent victory.
But he said the narrow margin demonstrated that almost half the voters oppose new taxes and more government intervention and are "weary of the cynical use of anti-tobacco rhetoric to advance their self-interest causes."