Prop. 51 gives voters budget role
By Jim Wasserman
In 89 years of California voters invading the Legislature's turf and deciding statewide issues themselves, no one has ever gone this far, striking deep inside the state budget to make off with $1 billion a year for themselves.
But a wide-ranging cast of land developers, museums, cities and environmental groups is planning exactly that with Proposition 51 on the Nov. 5 ballot. A daring move during a multibillion-dollar state budget crisis, their aggressive leap into the Legislature's domain is attracting a hailstorm of criticism as the biggest example yet of an initiative process captured by powerful blocs it was designed to thwart.
"Now, it almost means we need the Legislature and the citizens to break the lock of special interests on the initiative side," said David Abel, a public affairs specialist who was chairman of the Speakers Commission on the California Initiative Process earlier this year.
Proposition 51, sponsored by the environmental movement's veteran Planning and Conservation League, marks the first large-scale attempt by Californians to bypass the Legislature entirely -- and claim a piece of the state budget for their own specific projects.
If passed, it will snare about $1 billion yearly in state taxes from car sales and steer it to specific PCL-designated transportation priorities. Opponents say many of the projects reflect interests of contributors who gave $2 million to qualify the measure and hope to raise an additional $5 million to pass it.
Among them are Ross Perot Jr.'s Dallas-based Hillwood Development Corp., building a cargo facility near a part of San Bernardino that is promised railroad underpasses. Hillwood contributed $120,000. The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians hopes for promised rail service from Los Angeles to Palm Springs, where it operates two casinos.
"Any kind of transportation that would enhance the tourist visitorship to the Coachella Valley would be a good thing," said Tom Davis, chief planning officer for the tribe, which contributed $125,000.
Los Angeles homebuilder Pardee Homes, which gave $200,000, expects "hundreds of millions of dollars for targeted traffic congestion relief in California counties where Pardee is active as a residential, commercial, and industrial builder and developer," according to spokesman Leonard Frank.
Numerous Sacramento ranchers also kicked in $2,500 to $5,000 each, collectively expecting more than $1 million a year in subsidies to keep their land in farming and free of subdivisions.
"Here you have a case where no member of the public had a chance to say, 'Here's a project that ought to be funded,'" said Jean Ross, director of the California Budget Project, a critic of the PCL measure.
Ross also questions several projects, asking whether $40 million to improve the Music Concourse at Golden Gate Park, $7 million for a railroad museum in Sacramento and a $10 million charter school for the arts in Oakland are even transportation related.
The PCL's vision is to steer $1 billion a year from general spending to big congestion-relief projects such as connecting Highway 56 to Interstate 5 in San Diego County, expanding light rail 10 miles from downtown Sacramento to the airport and bringing Caltrain to San Francisco's Transbay Terminal.
The group also aims to build pedestrian trails, rebuild freeway interchanges and buy land for open space to compensate for landscapes ravaged by an earlier generation of highways.
A powerful, ballot-savvy environmental coalition claiming 10,000 members and 120 affiliates, the PCL maintains it's simply stepping in where the Legislature has failed: Making permanent long-term investments in California's neglected physical infrastructure.
The PCL lists nearly 200 supporters among environmental groups, transportation firms, businesses, developers, cities, school districts and farm groups.
Experts on voter initiatives call such ballot-box budgeting unusual and politically impossible in most other states, while critics liken it to a lightning raid by special interests on the state treasury.
"We plead guilty to that," said an unapologetic Gerald Meral, head of the PCL with its long string of California ballot successes. "The Legislature has been decreasingly unwilling to make long-term infrastructure investments of any kind.... You can't maintain society by not investing in what you've built."
Yet after years of passing multimillion-dollar state bonds for parks, wildlife and transit, a newer, more aggressive PCL strategy to capture part of the state budget for its own priorities is unhinging groups including the League of Women Voters of California and the California State Association of Counties, as well as Republican candidate for governor Bill Simon.
Even the environmentalist California League of Conservation Voters is neutral on Proposition 51, unsure about some of the projects and worried about adding to state deficits. Capitol budget watchers and tax groups also believe the PCL and its wealthy backers may have crossed a line.
"Oh sure, some of these projects are popular, and I'm sure some of them are nice," said Lenny Goldberg, director of the California Tax Reform Association. "But that's why we have a legislative process to determine priorities. In this case, priorities are determined by whoever contributed to the campaign."
Meral waves off such comments, saying contributions are necessary to qualify such a measure and win popular support with mailings and television advertising. Meral has long weathered criticism for tailoring ballot measures to contributors. In 1990, the Legislature outlawed the practice; but in 1995, the PCL won a state Court of Appeals ruling declaring it legal precisely because it's done in the open.
"We have the initiative process in our Constitution," Meral said. "The Legislature is not viewed as the last word. The people are the last word."
Dane Waters, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Initiative and Referendum Institute, backs Meral on the point.
"In my opinion, it's appropriate. The initiative is there to be used by groups when the Legislature doesn't give them what they want."
But he also admits that using the voter initiative for detailed budget-making is unusual.
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