Rich put agendas to a vote

Evan Halper is a Times staff writer.

California’s ballot is often crowded with measures known as citizen initiatives. But many of the citizens whose causes will come before voters Tuesday are not everyday Californians.

International financier George Soros wants to change drug laws. Computer technology titan Henry T. Nicholas III -- who has been indicted on federal fraud and drug charges -- is pushing two measures seeking tougher penalties for criminals and expanded rights for victims.

Oilman turned alternative-fuels investor T. Boone Pickens is pushing subsidies for cars that run on substances other than oil. And Peter Sperling, one of the founders of the highly profitable Phoenix University system, is the financial force behind another green- energy pursuit.

Never before has such a large assortment of the extremely wealthy placed their pet projects on the statewide ballot. Five of the dozen statewide measures facing voters in this election have billionaire sponsors.


All of them are among the Forbes 400 richest Americans. Each has spent millions to get his issue on the ballot.

The ability of the wealthy to bankroll ballot measures, paying for petition signatures and advertising campaigns, has been increasingly on display in California. Two years ago, for example, Hollywood producer Steven Bing dumped $48 million into an unsuccessful effort to raise taxes on oil to pay for alternative fuels.

But the size of this year’s crop of billionaire initiatives is troubling, according to some.

“Our initiative process has been completely corrupted from the populist idea of people taking matters into their own hands when the Legislature is not doing its job,” said Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco).


For the moguls, the attraction to the ballot is simple.

The investment of a few million dollars can redirect billions of dollars in taxpayer money and upend statutes that have been on the books for decades. Even though the odds of success are long, the cost is relatively small for a person with a billion dollars or more.

“It is an opportunity to make powerful and effective change in one fell swoop,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance Network, which used $1.4 million donated by Soros to put Proposition 5 on the ballot and promote it.

That measure would dramatically change the way nonviolent drug offenders are treated. Hundreds of millions of additional dollars will be spent on rehabilitation programs if it passes, and inmates will be given time off their sentences for participating in those programs.


The initiative process is full of risk: Many measures fail, and the ones that pass can change laws in ways their authors never intended. But when things go right, Nadelmann says, the ballot offers high rollers the potential to create far bigger policy changes than they could by directing dollars to politicians, lobbyists or nonprofits.

“For people who are interested in accomplishing real political reforms, this is where you can get the greatest return on your investment,” he said.

The billionaires, none of whom would be interviewed, are using the initiative process for a host of reasons. For Soros, long a critic of America’s war on drugs, it is ideology. Same for Sperling, who put $9 million into Proposition 7, which would require utilities to obtain substantially more of their energy from renewable resources.

For others, the reasons are personal.


Broadcom co-founder Nicholas is pushing his agenda in memory of his murdered sister. A $1-million contribution from him jump-started Proposition 6, which would lengthen prison sentences for certain crimes and allow people who lie to police about gang crimes to be prosecuted as accessories.

Proposition 9, in which Nicholas has invested $4.8 million, would require mandatory restitution when crime victims suffer a loss, increase the maximum allowable time between parole hearings for an inmate from five to 15 years, and allow an unlimited number of victim family members to testify at such hearings.

Because the charges against Nicholas are federal, and his sister’s killer has died, neither initiative would apply to his current situation.

Sometimes there are financial considerations at play.


A company Pickens founded, Clean Energy Fuels Corp., is well positioned to cash in on $5 billion in subsidies for drivers and companies using alternative-fuel vehicles if voters approve Proposition 10. The company spent $15.2 million to qualify and promote the initiative.

Whatever the motives, said Robert Stern, president of the Center for Government Studies in Los Angeles, the billionaires are “trying to leave a legacy. And these are big legacies if the measures pass.”

“They are probably thinking, for $10 million or $15 million, we can actually accomplish something,” he said.

As Stern notes, though: For powerful people accustomed to taking control, the initiative process can be unwieldy.


Just ask Sperling. He expected his green energy proposal to be attacked by the big utilities. What he hadn’t anticipated, according to a spokesman, was that some of the country’s big environmental groups would pile on.

The activist groups say that flaws in the way the measure was written would actually stall the development of solar, wind and other renewable energy in California, a charge Sperling denies.

“It is extremely disappointing to see traditional environmental organizations lining up with the dirty power lobby,” said Steve Hopcraft, a spokesman for the Yes on Proposition 7 campaign.

Environmentalists from the big-money crowd have seen their plans go awry before.


The campaign for Bing’s 2006 proposition had lots of cash and coveted endorsements from A-list celebrities and big environmental groups.

But the opposition persuaded voters that the tax would not have been be paid exclusively from oil company profits -- as proponents insisted -- but would instead have led to a surge in prices at the pump.

Stern said it is often the case that voters just aren’t as enamored of some ideas as the well-meaning wealthy.

“We are seeing fewer and fewer of these kinds of initiatives adopted,” Stern said. “Voters are cynical.”






Billionaire-backed measures

Four billionaires paid to put five measures on Tuesday’s ballot:


Reduce penalties and expand treatment


George Soros’ donations:

$1.4 million

Total donations in support:

$6.6 million



Increase drug-, gang- and firearms-related penalties

Henry T. Nicholas III’s donations

$1 million


Total donations in support

$1.7 million


Require utilities to increase renewable energy


Peter Sperling’s donations

$9 million

Total donations in support

$9.2 million



Increase victims’ input in the justice process

Henry T. Nicholas III’s donations

$4.8 million


Total donations in support

$4.9 million


Borrow $5 billion to promote cleaner fuels


T. Boone Pickens’ donations*

$15.2 million

Total donations in support

$17.5 million


*Donations by the Clean Energy Fuels Corp., which Pickens founded

Source: California secretary of state’s office