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Tobacco taxes are great, but Proposition 29 stinks

Yes, our freeways and surface streets are crumbling. But the next time your front wheel hits an enormous pothole, you can remember with pride that California is the world leader in one form of highway maintenance: paving the road to hell with good intentions.

The June 5 election will give the state’s voters another opportunity in this vein. The vehicle is Proposition 29, which would jack up the state tax on cigarettes by $1 a pack, generating some $800 million a year mostly for cancer research, with some going to related health and anti-smoking programs.

The weighing of intention vs. result here is fairly straightforward. Raising $800 million a year for the state: Good. Discouraging smoking via a harsh tax: Great. Sequestering the money for a limited purpose: Bad. Really bad.

The supporters of Proposition 29 have made much of the fact that the tobacco industry has gone all in to defeat it, as though that in itself attests to its wisdom. The opposition forces, led by the tobacco companies Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds, have contributed about $40.6 million so far to kill the measure, according to the latest figures from the secretary of state’s office. That compares with the roughly $10 million raised from such donors as the American Cancer Society and American Lung Assn. on the other side.

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As anyone who has been in front of a television set in recent months knows, the tobacco companies have two lines of attack: They argue that the initiative sets up an unaccountable bureaucracy to disburse the funds and that there’s nothing stopping the money from going to out-of-state researchers.

It’s a measure of how bad Proposition 29 is that the cigarette makers are correct. Here’s a rule that should be instilled in the heads of anyone writing a ballot proposition: If you’re so inept that you hand the tobacco industry legitimate talking points, you’ve failed.

In many respects Proposition 29 is a clone of 2004’s Proposition 71, which created the state’s stem cell program and retired the trophy for doing the wrong thing in the wrong way for what sounds like the right reasons. Proposition 71, you may recall, was sold to a gullible public via candy-coated images of Christopher Reeve walking again and Michael J. Fox cured of Parkinson’s. The implication was that these miracles would happen if voters approved a $3-billion bond issue for stem cell research. Who could be against that?

As it turned out, the stem cell measure created an unwieldy bureaucracy and etched conflicts of interest into the state Constitution. By last count about 85% of the $1.3 billion in grants handed out by the program, or some $1.1 billion, has gone to institutions with representatives on the stem cell board. The program is virtually immune to oversight by the Legislature or other elected officials. For these reasons and others, it has grappled with only mixed success with changes in stem cell science and politics that have called its original rationale into question.

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The new measure’s drafters took a close look at Proposition 71 as well as a 2009 critique of the program by the state’s Little Hoover Commission, according to Don Perata, the former president pro tem of the state Senate, one of its principal authors. Yet they managed to reproduce the earlier measure’s worst flaws.

For example, the commission pointed out that Proposition 71 mandated an overly specific list of qualifications for board members, including the requirement that the board include officials from leading California research institutions and advocacy groups for sufferers from diseases that (supposedly) could be cured via stem cell therapies. That has resulted in a lack of truly objective or independent voices on the stem cell program’s 29-member board.

Proposition 29, similarly, places most spending from the tobacco tax in the hands of a nine-member board that must comprise one cardiovascular physician affiliated with a California academic medical center; the chancellors of UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco and UC Santa Cruz; two representatives of lobbying groups devoted to tobacco-related illness (including one who has been treated for such a disease); and three representatives from National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers in the state. There are 10 of the latter, including five UC campuses and the City of Hope. Plainly, every member of the board will represent an employer that thinks it’s in line for some of the money.

Perata seems to regard this as a virtue. “We have a highly constructed board, and we made them all people who had a direct connection to the subject matter,” he told me. He expressed an endearingly starry-eyed, but possibly misplaced, confidence that the people landing on the board would be so distinguished that they wouldn’t even think of engaging in a conflict of interest. “These are all pretty extraordinary people who do this work,” he said. “We have the elite.”

Responding to the charge that tobacco tax money could go out of state, Perata said the drafters could not figure out how to prevent California researchers from “working with scientists at Harvard or Johns Hopkins.” (The stem cell measure figured that out in 2004 — simply require grant applicants to move to California, so that the program’s spending could contribute directly to the state’s economy.) But he also asserted that the new board could be relied on to flow grants to Californians. “This money is not going to be exported,” he said.

With so many board members affiliated with California institutions, he may be right, although there’s no such mandate in the measure. The real problem with Proposition 29 is its mandate to lock in a huge revenue stream for the narrow purpose of cancer research. That’s a worthy endeavor, to be sure, but there are other pressing needs for the money.

Gov. Brown’s latest budget proposal calls for cuts of $1.2 billion in Medi-Cal and $900 million in CalWorks (a relief program for families with children) and steep cuts in financial aid for college students and in court budgets. The University of California and Cal State systems are becoming crippled by 20 years of cutbacks in state funding, leading to soaring tuition charges. Tobacco-related illnesses create some of the burden on Medi-Cal and other public healthcare programs, yet a minimal portion of Proposition 29 revenue, if any, would go to helping taxpayers carry that burden.

With the overall state budget gap approaching $16 billion, how can anyone make the case for diverting a huge chunk of $800 million a year in new revenue to long-term scientific research, whether in California or not? Even if you believe that case can be made, the proper place to make it is in the Legislature, where all these demands on the budget can be weighed and balanced against one another — not at the ballot box, where the only choice is to spend it the way the initiative’s drafters choose or not to raise it at all.

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Perata rationalizes these provisions by arguing that this is the only way to get a tax measure passed in 21st century California. “I completely agree that the University [of California] is in real jeopardy of losing its reputation,” he told me, “but the people who are interested in supporting a tax don’t want it to be distributed by the Legislature.” This attitude is “killing us,” he agreed, but added, “you don’t win any campaigns by telling the public they’re wrong.”

To hear an experienced politician like Perata throw up his hands like this is just sad. Yes, California voters are profoundly cynical about the legislative process. Unfortunately, one of the prime reasons is the failure of political leaders to do their jobs. Bailing out on the legislative process, resorting to ballot-box budgeting, and defending it as the only way to achieve one’s ends? Perata should be ashamed.

Legislating by voter initiative, where the entire debate is conducted by television commercial, reduces all politics to an exercise in raising money. No one should be surprised that even veteran politicians such as Perata choose this easy way out, because raising money for political campaigns is the one thing American politicians do terrifically well.

But it doesn’t serve the voters one bit. The benefits of driving up the cost of smoking to keep kids off cigarettes are obvious, but the structure of Proposition 29 is poisonous to the health of the body politic. It just hooks the voters on cheap non-solutions to our problems in the same way that Philip Morris hooks kids on tobacco. The first step to quitting the ballot-box addiction is to say no to wretched measures like this one.

Michael Hiltzik’s column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at mhiltzik@latimes.com, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.


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