Reporting from Sacramento -- The proposal is simple: Raise taxes on cigarettes to pay for cancer research.
The push for it is quintessentially Californian, melding celebrity salesmanship and the whims of state voters, who have increasingly been called on to decide key policy questions.
The pitchman for Proposition 29, which will appear on the June ballot, is seven-time Tour de France champion and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, who is asking voters to increase taxes on a pack of cigarettes by $1. On Wednesday, he announced a $1.5 million contribution from his Texas-based foundation to the Yes on 29 campaign.
"We feel that Prop. 29 will save lives, stop kids from smoking and just may lead us to a cure," he told reporters in a conference call.
If approved, the measure would raise more than $850 million a year, according to the state's nonpartisan legislative analyst. The money would be used to fund cancer research, build new research facilities and aid anti-smoking programs. Three percent of the take would go to the state attorney general and local law enforcement agencies to fight black-market cigarette sales and crack down on retailers who sell tobacco to minors.
A new nine-member citizen committee would hand out the money. The governor and state public health director would appoint most of the panel, which would also include the chancellors of the University of California campuses at Berkeley, San Francisco and Santa Cruz.
Mark Paul, a former deputy state treasurer and co-author of "California Crackup," a book about state governance, protests that the measure does not address the state's most pressing financial needs.
"Like many initiatives, this plays to people's emotions," he said. "Who likes cancer? Nobody does. But when we're raising tuition at universities and shortening the … school year and shutting down core services, is this where we should be spending our money?"
Those actively fighting the measure, including tobacco companies and anti-tax groups, object that the money it raised would be distributed without oversight from lawmakers or any other elected officials.
"Prop. 29 mandates a huge new bureaucracy with little accountability to taxpayers," said Teresa Casazza, president of the California Taxpayers Assn.
Philip Morris has spent $2.5 million on campaign consultants and polling to bolster its case against the initiative, and that number is expected to multiply as the June 5 primary election approaches.
Jim Knox, spokesman for the American Cancer Society, defended the measure, noting that tobacco companies have blocked dozens of proposed tax increases on their products in the Legislature.
"Using tobacco taxes to pay for cancer research makes sense," he said. "Tobacco use causes cancer. The connection is very direct."
Armstrong, who said he'll campaign for the measure in California whenever his triathlon training schedule permits, is the latest celebrity to use the state ballot to push a pet cause.
In 1998, actor and director Rob Reiner successfully pushed a 50-cent-per-pack tobacco tax to pay for childhood development programs. A second Reiner-backed proposal, a tax hike on upper incomes to fund universal preschool, was resoundingly rejected by voters in 2006. Arnold Schwarzenegger persuaded voters in 2002 to dedicate a portion of state taxes to after-school programs in a move that became a test run for his gubernatorial bid the next year.
Armstrong helped convince Texas voters to pass a $3 billion bond measure for tobacco research in 2007. He has sent mixed signals about his own political aspirations but left the door ajar Wednesday, saying a run for office was not in his plans "at this point of my life." He said he might push similar cancer-related measures in other states.
Armstrong and his allies, including the American Heart Assn. and the American Lung Assn., in addition to the American Cancer Society, will be promoting their California cause to a public that has rejected a variety of tax increases in recent years, including tobacco levies. In 2006, in addition to rejecting Reiner's income-tax measure, voters spurned a proposal to increase cigarette taxes by $2.60 a pack to reimburse hospitals for treating uninsured patients and to expand health insurance coverage for children.
This year's measure was hatched by former state Senate leader and cancer survivor Don Perata, a Democrat from Oakland who intended it to dovetail with his run for mayor there in 2010. The initiative would have given him a high-profile cause to champion as he appealed to voters to put their trust in him.
Perata recruited Armstrong but ultimately scotched the measure for the 2010 ballot, after the anti-cancer groups asked him to hold off while they helped refine it.