Prop. 89: So Good It’s Scary — to Sacramento

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The Los Angeles Times

There’s a good reason the 59-year-old La Habra woman I wrote about Sunday can’t get health insurance for a condition that could cripple her.

It’s the same reason the cost of prescription drugs is emptying the pockets of our elders and that corporate welfare grows while employee pensions disappear and that we can’t clean our beaches or legislate better gas mileage even though the air is dirty and the planet is melting.

These are all matters of public policy, and public policy is rigged. It’s a game of grease and money, and in Sacramento, it’s played by future Hall of Famers.

Did you happen to see the story yesterday by my colleague Marc Lifsher? He reported that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s top campaign guy is also on AT&T Inc.’s payroll in Texas.

Why worry, you ask?

Because the Schwarzenegger administration has been involved in negotiations over a bill that would allow companies such as AT&T and Verizon to bypass local review and compete with existing cable companies.

AT&T is drooling at the prospect, which may be part of the reason why the telecom behemoth and its recent merger partner SBC have given more than a quarter of a million dollars to Schwarzenegger and the committees he controls. This is the governor we elected on a promise to terminate special-interest politics.

But let’s be fair and look across the aisle. The bill was sponsored by Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), and let’s see if you can guess who honored Nunez this past spring at a Pebble Beach clam bake that raised $1.7 million for the state Democratic Party.

Starts with an A and has two Ts.

You could kill a day arguing the merits of the Nunez bill, which could create new competition and jobs in cable but might leave some neighborhoods stuck with inferior service. What you can’t disagree on, though, is the appearance that public policy is up for bid, even though politicians always seem to be shocked at the suggestion they could ever be influenced by cash donations.

I’ve written about this so often over the years, I probably should wear a helmet to protect myself from beating my head against the wall. Nothing has changed, at least not significantly enough to make a difference.

But now along comes Proposition 89, the so-called “clean money” reform plan that has qualified for the November ballot and could do what politicians have been too cowardly and self-interested to do.

It would strictly limit campaign contributions by corporations, unions and individuals; put a lid on candidate spending; and establish publicly financed campaigns paid for with a .2% increase in the corporate income tax rate.

Although Prop. 89 is imperfect, at least one aspect of it is extremely attractive.

It has almost everyone in Sacramento in a dither.

The California Chamber of Commerce is aghast. The California Taxpayers’ Assn. is against. Big Pharma, oil and insurance lobbyists are almost certainly hyperventilating. Legislators aren’t exactly leading cheers and neither are the candidates for governor. And I just learned that the powerful California Teachers Assn. has joined the nattering naysayers.

Becky Zoglman, a CTA spokeswoman, told me her organization is in favor of reform but “we have some concerns about the way this one was written” and “we believe it would limit our ability to participate in politics.”

What she means is that the group wouldn’t be able to throw money around to win influence. CTA’s political action committees have spent at least $13.6 million on candidates and $114 million on ballot measures since 1999, according to Jamie Court of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

But you shouldn’t have to pay to participate in politics.

“Teachers’ ideas should be strong enough to sway politicians; otherwise, their students are in trouble,” said Court. “But this union, like many other people, believe they are heard because of the power of their money and not the power of their ideas. Prop. 89 is going to be a recall of politics as usual.”

The arguments against?

Corporations, among other groups, will wage court battles arguing that limiting campaign donations is akin to limiting free speech. (But the 55-page proposition was vetted by constitutional experts who believe it will stand up.)

Every knucklehead in the state will jump at the chance to run for office on the state’s dime, and the public will end up paying for the kind of negative campaigns we all loathe. (But candidates must get signatures of support and small contributions from thousands of supporters to qualify for a run, and doing so could encourage grass-roots, idea-generated campaigns rather than the usual mud bath.)

Millionaire candidates can opt out of spending limits and try to buy their way into office. (But they would tick off voters because Prop. 89 would require extra public money for the millionaires’ foes.)

A sugar daddy can spend unlimited amounts for or against a candidate so long as he doesn’t coordinate with any candidate or anyone else. (But disadvantaged candidates would get additional public funds to counter the sugar daddy’s efforts.)

As you’ll recall, I began this column with a reference to the healthcare fiasco, and it seems fitting to end by telling you that Prop. 89 was sponsored by the California Nurses Assn. Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro said front-line nurses gave up hope that patient care will ever improve as long as special interests are allowed to buy their way into the public policy debate and sabotage needed reforms.

“It’s so fundamentally out of control that we didn’t have a choice but to do this,” DeMoro said. “This is a very serious effort at trying to get people elected who will make policy free of coercion.”

Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdog
Providing an effective voice for American consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Non-partisan.

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