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Those pesky propositions
October 01, 2012, 05:00 AM By Sue Lempert

It’s time to consider those pesky propositions on the state ballot. They are there because the Legislature can’t agree on controversial measures and/or because powerful special interests want something to happen or not to happen. Forget about citizen initiatives or direct democracy. That being said, it doesn’t mean we should ignore them. Some need to be voted in. Others need to be voted down.

The proposition which has received the most attention and is the most important is Proposition 30. It’s there because of a budget stalemate similar to what is happening in Washington, D.C. Congress couldn’t agree on a deficit funding plan to raise sufficient revenue and make additional spending cuts. If Congress doesn’t act before the end of the year, there will be drastic cuts in military and discretionary spending. In Sacramento, the only way legislators could balance the budget was to rely on income from a successfully passed Proposition 30. If that fails, there will be drastic cuts to education and other state-supported services. We are caught in a Catch 22. Much of our state financial problems are due, in part, to initiatives. It’s a vicious circle. Still, we need to pass Proposition 30 to get out of the stranglehold created by past propositions — notably Howard Jarvis’ Proposition 13 and its ripple effect.

There is another education funding measure on the ballot, Proposition 38, sponsored by Molly Munger, a civil rights attorney, and supported by the California PTA. The money would go to schools and preschool. If both propositions pass, the measure with the most votes will be the winner. The concern is that some education supporters will vote for Munger’s bill which is trailing instead of Proposition 30 and both will fail. So far, Proposition 30 is leading but it needs more than 50 percent to pass.

The most controversial is Proposition 34 to eliminate the death penalty. Supporters say capital punishment in California isn’t working. The process to ensure that no one is wrongly executed is so effective that the death penalty is not implemented. There are many hoops and lengthy appeals, a cottage industry for death penalty lawyers. There are currently 725 inmates on death row. Since 1977, 60 have died from natural causes versus only 13 who have been executed. New challenges as to how the death penalty is administered has also added to the delays. As a result, capital punishment is too expensive and the most extreme punishment for extreme crimes should be life without parole. Supporters make a good case for the outlandish expense and the ineffectiveness of the current system. But is Proposition 34 the right fix? According to law enforcement and victims, it is not. If the process needs to be improved, then do it fairly. Life imprisonment without parole is also expensive. And there needs to be the harshest deterrent especially for cop killers. If people want to eliminate the death penalty for moral reasons than that should be the reason for the initiative, not cost. However, past efforts have failed and the economic reason may be more persuasive. To date, this measure has a slight lead in the polls.


Is life imprisonment without possibility of parole a harsher sentence than the death penalty? This is the subject of a famous short story "The Bet” by Anton Chekov. In it, two lawyers are debating which is worse. The older attorney says the death penalty is more moral and more humane than imprisonment for life. "Capital punishments kills a man at once, but lifelong imprisonment kills him slowly.” The younger disagrees and says to live anyhow is better than not at all. The older attorney offers to pay a huge sum if the younger man agrees to solitary confinement for 15 years. Thus the bet. As it turns out, neither wins but you will have to read this classic to find out the details. It does beg the question which is the harsher punishment? Is the monotony of jail for a lifetime preferable to execution?


Then we have the propositions which shouldn’t be there at all. Proposition 35 increases penalties for human trafficking. While it seems no one should be against it, does it belong in the California Constitution? Ditto for Proposition 37 which requires all genetically engineered food to be so labeled. Monsanto is against this and consumer food groups are for it. And there are several more in this category. Why doesn’t the Legislature deal with these issues? The answer: Proponents feel they have a better chance of making law via the ballot box. But this is a real turnoff for the voter. Every year we hear the same lament. Clean up the initiative process. We’re still waiting.

Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at



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