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Mad Props 

Running down this June's state ballot measures: Part 1 of 2

This is a hot political season, not only because of the battles raging across Humboldt County for a variety of key positions, but also for the multitude of ballot initiatives coming to a ballot near you in June.

Much attention has been paid to the Tax Cannabis Act, which could very well legalize marijuana in November if voters approve. In the meantime, though, five propositions will come before voters on the June ballot, and each could have a serious impact on California. Voters will decide whether to change the rules on when property is assessed, to eliminate the partisan primary, to test run a publicly funded elections scheme, to bring any attempt to create a public energy entity to a ballot vote and to loosen auto insurance regulations.

To Tax or Not to Tax

Proposition 13 is probably the most straightforward and broadly supported of the props on the ballot in June. No, this is not the earthshaking tax-limiting Prop. 13 approved in 1978, which some have issues with, but this 13 does have to do with the conditions that trigger a reassessment of property for tax purposes, specifically in regards to seismic retrofitting.

As it stands, either a change in ownership or new construction will trigger the reassessment of property for tax purposes. There are two exemptions in the California Constitution relating to the "new construction" trigger: Unreinforced masonry buildings that undergo seismic retrofitting are reassessed 15 years later, and other types of seismic upgrades to any building are exempted completely. Both only apply until the buildings are sold.

If approved by voters, the two current exclusions will be removed and replaced with one general exemption on all seismic upgrades made to a building until the property is sold, allowing property owners to retrofit their buildings without the worry of their property taxes increasing.

The proposition -- which would amend the Constitution -- was unanimously approved by the Legislature and referred to the voters. It has the support of many California newspaper editorial boards, the California Democratic Party and other state officials. The California Nurses Association has officially opposed it, but the opposition in general has been fairly quiet -- no official arguments against it were submitted to the Secretary of State.

The only possible fiscal impact of Prop. 13 would be on upgrades made to unreinforced masonry buildings that would no longer be reassessed after 15 years, leading to minor reduction in local property tax revenue.

Primary Concerns

If there is any prop that voters should be aware of it would be Prop. 14, primarily due to the systemic changes that would occur in the way California runs its elections if approved. This legislatively referred, Constitution-amending prop would scrap California partisan primaries in favor of an open one.

Under the current system, each political party holds a primary to determine which candidate would best represent the party in the general election. Under the proposed new rules, all candidates vying for a state or Congressional position, regardless of party, would face off in a massive electoral joust, with the top two candidates moving forward to the general election. (The proposition would not affect non-partisan races, like those taking place at the county level right now.)

Since political affiliation is not a concern, this prop would open up the primary to Independent candidates, who usually have to wait it out until the general election. Candidates would be able to choose whether or not to have a party attached to their name on the ballot.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and his "Dream Team," a political action committee that throws its weight behind certain intiatives, has come out as the largest supporter of the prop, investing a hardy $1.75 million to date. In contrast, the opposition has raised no funds at all, according to the most recent cycle of campaign finance disclosures.

Supporters of this prop argue that opening up the primary to all candidates will increase voter participation, allow independent voters an equal voice in the primary, help elect more practical public officials who are more willing to compromise and give voters free rein on what candidate to vote for, rather than being locked into their party's box.

The current budget debacle in Sacramento and the gridlock that tends to occur in the process of approving the budget appear to be the driving factor behind this prop. Supporters optimistically hope that by opening up the primary voters will be free to elect moderates to the legislature, hence allowing for a smoother budget process.

But opponents aren't buying it. Predictably, both the California Republican Party and California Democratic Party are not down with this prop. Neither are the California Green Party or Ralph Nader, for that matter.

Opponents are concerned that the new rules will not allow write-in candidates in the general election. They are also concerned about how much it would cost the state to run a primary open to all candidates.

Then there is the issue of access. Minor parities, such as the Greens and Libertarians, are already concerned with the tough uphill battle they must fight in order to compete in the general election. With this new system in place, opponents argue that it would make it virtually impossible for a minor party candidate to win the primary, as they would be facing off against candidates from the larger, more well-funded parties in a two-winners-take-all system.

If approved, the measure would go into effect Jan. 1, 2011. Fiscal impacts projected by the State would more or less balance one another: On the one hand, it will cost state and local election officials more money to put together a huge primary package and ballot for voters, while saving money since a different ballot for each party would no longer be necessary.

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John C. Osborn

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