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Prop. 84 is poster measure for state’s devious initiative system

It’s hard to know whether to shout in anger or chuckle at the chutzpah.

Perhaps we should just nod in respect to the clever tactics.

Maybe all of the above.

Bill Leonard, member of the state Board of Equalization, says: “My reaction is, ‘I told you so.’ ”

That’s irresistible and I’ll join him.

Proposition 84 -- sold last year as a water protection bond -- was one of five special interest ballot initiatives crafted to spend and/or tax. They represented the sort of ballot-box budgeting that has crippled the ability of elected officials to set spending priorities.

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Moreover, Prop. 84 was a “pay-to-play” measure. That’s when an initiative entrepreneur shops a bond proposal to potential investors, who agree to back it financially in return for potentially reaping a share of the benefits for their pet causes. Prop. 84, authorizing $5.4 billion in state borrowing, did contain “a buffet of goodies” for its bankrollers, I wrote before the November election.

My advice to voters was to “dump every one” of the special interest ballot measures. And every one was tossed except Prop. 84, which passed with 54% of the vote.

Leonard was the most outspoken opponent of Prop. 84, writing the opposition argument in the state’s Official Voter Information Guide. “This measure should have been titled the ‘Special-Interest-Hidden-Agenda-Bond,’ ” the Republican began in his written argument.

“This so-called ‘water bond’ has no funding for dams or water storage! The authors set aside billions for bureaucratic studies, unnecessary protections for rats and weeds, and other frivolous projects.”

Little did Leonard or any of us really know.

As revealed by Times reporter Evan Halper in Monday’s paper, some legislators -- in cahoots with the measure’s special interest backers -- see Prop. 84 as a pork barrel. No surprise there. Indeed, that’s likely why Democratic legislative leaders and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger all endorsed it.

Halper’s story detailed how bills are pending that would tap into the bond money for the likes of a bike path through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, overnight accommodations for kayakers at Lake Tahoe, an ocean aquarium in inland Fresno and enhancements at L.A.'s Natural History Museum and the Huntington Botanical Gardens.

This from a bond measure officially titled: “Water quality, safety and supply. Flood control. Natural resource protection. Park improvements.”

“It does have a certain element of bait and switch about it,” says Richard G. Little, director of the Keston Institute for Public Finance and Infrastructure Policy at USC.

After all, the supporters’ argument in the voter guide mentioned the word “protect” 10 times. As in: “Prop. 84 protects California’s water, land and coastline -- protects drinking water quality ... protects against flooding ... protects California’s economy.” All these letters annoyingly were in caps.

Nothing at all about bike trails or kayaking or aquariums.

“ ‘Protect’ is the key word,” notes veteran political strategist Darry Sragow, who has run four successful bond campaigns for the Los Angeles Unified School District. “Its repeated use clearly was based on opinion research, and based on what happened in New Orleans.”

Just a year earlier, Californians had been jarred psychologically when Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, crumbling levees, flooding the city, inflicting $81 billion in damage and leaving 1,836 dead.

That could happen here, we realized. An earthquake could destroy the delta’s aged levees, killing people, cutting off much of Southern California’s water and devastating the state’s economy.

That was enough to prod the governor and Legislature into placing four public works bonds totaling $37 billion on the ballot, including $4.1 billion for flood control. Prop. 84 piggybacked onto this bipartisan package, and all were approved by voters.

Nobody talked up borrowing money -- paying double the base prices, including interest -- to upgrade local bicycling, kayaking and botanical gardens.

The lesson here is not so much about the trickery of Prop. 84. It does have some pluses, including $2.3 billion for water quality and flood control. It’s more about the deviousness of the entire initiative system and the inevitable deceitful advertising.

My suggestion next time is to toss every campaign mailer in the trash before it pollutes your mind. Focus on the nonpartisan legislative analyst’s invaluable summary of each measure in the voter guide.

After being misled, Little says, “Voters get outright cynical. They say, ‘Next time why should I believe you?’ Once you’ve lost that trust, it’s real hard to get back.”

Sragow has a slightly different take: “Voters are smart. They’re very skeptical of bond measures. They fundamentally believe that a lot of money will be misspent. That said, they’re willing to hold their collective noses and vote for these measures if they think the need is great enough.”

But biking and kayaking, displaying fish and flowers? These may be worthwhile projects, but they’re not at the top of most people’s priority lists for use of tax dollars -- not with leaky levees, clogged traffic and polluted water.

Not with the state still spending in the red and the governor trying to raid public transit funds and freeze benefits for the impoverished aged and disabled.

No, if anybody’s going to pay for these pork projects, it should be the local people who’ll benefit.

Unfortunately, the property tax-cutting Proposition 13 nearly 30 years ago made it practically impossible for local governments to raise revenue for such projects.

So the laugh’s on us, whether we’re talking about Prop. 13 or Prop. 84.

George Skelton writes Monday and Thursday. Reach him at george.skelton@latimes.com.


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