The San Jose Mercury News (California)
SACRAMENTO, CA — Don’t mess with the big-monied special interests.
That appears to be the object lesson to be gleaned from Tuesday’s election results on ballot measures, particularly for those who take on corporate juggernauts like the tobacco and oil industries, which spent a record $190 million to defeat Propositions 86 and 87.
Of the six non-infrastructure bond measures on the ballot, three took on corporate interests head-on, and none survived — a result that may discourage reformers from so readily embracing California’s initiative process in the future and could create momentum for its reform.
“This makes the case for why we need curbs on initiative spending,” said Jamie Court, president of the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. “Every initiative with money against it went down. It was the money that spoke. Right now, it’s a process unusable for anyone except people that have money. That’s not democracy, that’s a market.”
Prop. 86, which would have imposed a cigarette tax to finance the health industry, came closest with 48 percent of the vote, while Prop. 87, a proposed tax on energy companies to finance alternative energy development, received only 45 percent. And Proposition 89, the measure to reform campaigns and the ballot initiative process, received only 25 percent.
Proponents of those measures vow to either pursue reform through the Legislature next year, or take their case again to voters.
“We are not dispirited, we’re encouraged,” said Beth Willon, spokeswoman for Prop. 87. “This is not the ending. It’s just the beginning.”
Powerful industries have capitalized on the axiom of ballot measures: It’s easier to shoot down an idea than to get it passed. So, while the record of success of corporate-backed initiatives is spotty, successes in killing measures companies do not like has been strong, said Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley.
“Negative messages are seen as credible,” Cain said, “because people are skeptical, they don’t read the measures closely, and they’re willing to believe the negative information.”
There have been exceptions, but only rarely. Voters bucked the power lobby in 1988 when they approved Proposition 103, which forced insurance companies to reduce rates. In that instance, the insurance industry poured in $60 million to defeat the measure, but it had the backing of consumer advocate Ralph Nader, and
there were a number of other measures that diverted corporate interests on that ballot, Cain said.
Prop. 87, the proposed tax on oil companies, appeared to have the forces on its side this year: a general resentment among voters toward oil companies, their huge profit margins and high gasoline prices; major financial backing, in particular, from filmmaker Stephen Bing, who contributed $49.6 million of his personal money; an all-star lineup of supporters, including former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore, as well as Hollywood stars such as Robert Redford, Ben Affleck, Geena Davis and Julia Roberts.
But, their entreaties were no match for the opposition, an array of energy companies such as Chevron and Aera Energy, the umbrella corporation for Exxon and Shell, which together contributed $71 million of the $100 million spent against Prop. 87.
That money produced a barrage of television and radio advertisements that pummeled viewers with the idea that oil companies would pass on the cost of the $4 billion tax increase to consumers with higher gas prices. Proponents failed to effectively counter the charge, even though they insisted the initiative forbade oil companies from passing on the costs.
“Because of the $100 million, they were able to saturate the airwaves 24/7 with misinformation and plant the seeds of doubt,” said Willon, the spokeswoman for Prop. 87. “That’s all it takes in ballot initiatives. We got our message out clearly, but… these are very hard odds to overcome. We were up against the 800-pound gorilla.”
Reform takes more than the “symbolism” of taking on Big Oil, said Al Lundeen, spokesman for the No on 87 campaign.
“It was a message from voters that they’re cautious when they approach the proposition format,” Lundeen said. “(Proponents) got voters’ attention with the star power of Clinton and Gore and Hollywood celebrities. But you need more than getting their attention. You need a good product. Voters heard both sides and saw the flaws, which we pointed out and they didn’t have good answers to.”
On Prop. 86, the cigarette tax measure, opponents raised $84.7 million, with $56.7 million coming from two corporations, Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds. Supporters of the initiative contributed $17.6 million, of which more than $10 million came from hospital corporations.
The effect was to not only defeat the measures but to turn people off from politics, said Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of the California Nurses Association, the main sponsor of Proposition 89, the campaign finance reform measure that had its own corporate opponents — led by the California Chamber of Commerce.
“Across the board, the biggest winner on Tuesday in California was big money,” DeMoro said. “What is most dismaying, is the decline in the voting population and the alienation of ordinary Californians from the political process. Big money continues to overwhelm voters who feel shut out of the political system and are increasingly showing it by abandoning participation in our elections.”
DeMoro said the California Nurses Association will work with Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley, to reintroduce another measure to “reduce the influence of special interests in Sacramento.”
Contact Steven Harmon at [email protected] or (916) 441-2101.