Monday, November 5, 2012

2012 Endorsements

SF Reason endorsements for the November 6, 2012 state of California and city of San Francisco election

Prop 30 - Jerry Brown tax plan - Yes
Prop 38 - Munger tax plan - Yes

These are both plans to increase taxes temporarily to make up for budget deficits caused by the ongoing recession. If both of them receive enough votes to pass, whichever has the most votes will come into effect. We really hope at least one does, as the state really needs that money. We're voting for both, but if you're worried that your favored plan is going to lose out, you might vote No or at least abstain on the other.

Between the two, we favor the Jerry Brown plan (Prop 30), which first and foremost will prevent the "trigger cuts" that have been planted in the current state budget. The trigger cuts will effect K-12 and higher education as well as public safety (police and firefighters). For future budgets, lawmakers will simply have this money at their disposal to budget normally. Prop 30 leans more on the wealthy for its funding than 38, increasing income tax only on people earning over $250k and adding a small bump to California sales tax. 

Prop 38 would not prevent the trigger cuts, although it would actually generate more revenue than Prop 30 by raising income taxes on almost every Californian, with bigger increases for higher earners. The money in Prop 38 is earmarked for K-12 and debt repayment. We're never in favor of attaching strings to tax money and tying the hands of lawmakers (see what I did there?), but this wouldn't significantly impact their ability to shape a budget.

Prop 31 - Local government budgets, state budget procedure - No

Prop 31 has several different components that are only tenuously related, which makes it all the more likely that we won't like something about it. That's exactly what happened. Prop 31 got greedy.

On one hand, it would force some more fiscal responsibility on the state lawmakers, forcing them to "pay for" any spending increases by identifying new revenue or offsetting cuts. We could be down with that. It also switches the budget to a two-year cycle, which might not be a bad idea given how much trouble legislators have passing budgets.

Another piece of Prop 31 gives the Governor the power to cut spending at will in a fiscal emergency. Some people find this alarming, but a fiscal emergency is actually defined in the law by specific circumstances, so this doesn't bother us so much.

What tipped our scales against it was its provision for letting county and local governments come up with their own plans for spending money which (here's the kicker) would have to get approved by the legislature. We think Sacramento already has more on its plate than it can apparently handle and we don't feel like we can saddle lawmakers with even more.

Prop 32 - Limit political contributions from unions, corporations, and government contractors - No

While corporations and unions are prohibited from donating directly to candidates at the federal level, they are apparently free to do so at the state level. Prop 32 would bar them from doing so, although it would not prevent contributions to those fabled Super PACs, which are protected by the US Supreme Court.

De-politicizing unions and corporations might be something to consider. Many people think of them as the two big players on opposing sides of the vast, corrupt political money game.

But Prop 32 does not neuter unions and corporations equally. By preventing payroll deductions from being used for political purposes, it kicks unions where it hurts and leaves corporations unscathed. By a show of hands we had no CEOs in our group and at least one union member, but even if we didn't we probably still would have voted No on this.

Prop 33 - Auto insurance discount adjustment - No

Sometimes a more subtle point can be more contentious, and we were split on this one. Prop 33 would change the way a particular auto insurance discount—the continuous coverage discount—would be applied. Currently people who switch companies are treated the same as someone with no insurance at all, neither receiving the discount. Prop 33 would let you retain that discount when you switched. This situation led to two different economic predictions, informing the way individuals in our group voted:

Theory 1: Giving the switchers a discount would have no impact on the price new auto insurance customers pay, as competition for their business will keep rates at current levels. Permitting the discount to carry over would allow insurance companies to compete for existing customers on a level playing field, leading to lower prices and higher quality service. Vote YES.

Theory 2: If an insurance company could differentiate between new auto insurance buyers and customers switching from another company, they'd lower the prices for current subscribers to lure them in and gouge new insurers with higher rates to compensate. Rates for new customers would go up, effectively punishing them for not driving. Higher rates for new customers would make people hesitant to drop insurance if they stop driving. The current system keeps the rates for new insurers low. Vote NO.

3 of us believed in the first theory, while 7 believed in the second, so our overall vote is NO.

Prop 34 - End the death penalty - Yes

We didn't feel any need to rehash all the arguments for and against the death penalty. It's not really a new topic and it turns out we're all in favor of stopping it. Typical San Francisco liberals, I know.

But Prop 34 gets a little greedy! It also mandates that prisoners formerly known as death row inmates will be forced to work in prison and send some of their wages to the victims' families. Some would argue that this is a form of slavery. Some of us don't like how this ecosystem of artificially cheap labor perfectly profits private prison proprietor people and distorts the labor market in general. Was that enough for us to vote against it? Nah.

Prop 35 - Human trafficking - No

Prop 35 expands the definition of human trafficking and brings down some barriers to convicting people of this crime. To be sure, we are not fans of most kinds of trafficking, especially the human variety, but we think this law goes too far. It's wants to punish the bad guys so badly, it doesn't care how much bad it does to non-bad people. Bad.

You want some controversy? We think prostitution should be legal. That's right, we said it. When it's freely done between consenting adults it does not step on anyone else's rights. Human trafficking is when someone is being forced to perform sex work and obviously that is illegal and should remain so. But Prop 35 will open to door to more aggressive prostitution prosecution. Preposterous.

You say you want even more controversy? We think the registered sex offender thing has gone too far. A murderer can quietly move to your neighborhood, but a pervert can't? These people have supposedly paid their debt to society. In some cases you have perfectly normal high school kids who ran afoul of archaic statutory rape laws and now can't ever get out from under the sex offender cloud. I bring this up because Prop 35 adds a new way to hassle sex offenders, making them give up all their online account information. No thanks.

Prop 36 - Three strikes reform - Yes

We never really liked California's three strikes law when it was first implemented many moons ago, before most of us could vote. One argument against it has always been that someone could commit a relatively minor crime and, if it happened to be their third strike, would get 25 years to life for it. Prop 36 will correct that, giving repeat offenders a more reasonably scaled-up sentence. Murderers, rapists, and child molesters will continue to get the full three-strikes law. Sounds good to us.

Prop 37 - Label GMO food - Yes

Most countries in Europe require GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) food to be labeled. Even China does. Should we?

Is GMO food safe? Well, so far there is no evidence that it isn't. And of course it's still regulated by the FDA, so it's subject to the same safety precautions that other food is. Some people would argue that even though GMOs have been around for about 20 years and are in virtually every supermarket product not labeled USDA Organic, they should still be treated with caution for fear of yet-undiscovered side effects.

However, in many ways going organic is a principled, political stance as much as a health issue, and GMOs have a dark political side. Most GMO seed in the US is produced, patented, and litigated by giant agro-chem companies like Monsanto, basically the Halliburton of the food world. I dare you to watch a documentary like Food, Inc. and not be appalled at how they push farmers around through intimidation and litigation.

Back to the labeling. Some argue that it will raise food prices, but we don't believe that. TV ads decry the exemptions to meat, alcohol, and organics, but we don't have a problem with that. One problem that was mentioned in our group, however, is that GMO labels will become so ubiquitous as to lose all meaning. Sort of like the "chemicals known to the state of California to cause cancer" signs you see everywhere as a result of Prop 65, passed in 1986. While one might argue that there's no harm in a meaningless label, another member of our group argues that "extra labeling is inherently negative."

Ultimately, though, our group voted 5 to 3 in favor of Prop 37.

Prop 38 - Munger tax plan - Yes

(see Prop 30)

Prop 39 - Multi-state corporate tax adjustment, clean energy funding - Yes

Pencils up, accountants. Prop 39 makes a change to the way California determines how much of a multi-state corporation's profits shall be taxed in California. Currently a company can choose to have it calculated by how much of their property and employees are actually in the state, which winds up encouraging them to move jobs out of the Golden State. Prop 39 takes away this option, taxing multi-state companies instead on the percentage of their sales that are in California. Hiring disincentive gone—sounds good to us.

But then of course Prop 39 has to get greedy. It earmarks the estimated revenue increase for green energy programs and green job training. We like those things, but really don't like earmarks. Well, we still voted Yes.

Prop 40 - Keep citizen-drawn districts - Yes

This was an easy one. We were all for Prop 11 in 2008 which created a commission to draw district lines, a job previously done by the majority in the state legislature, often with hilarious results due to the excessive gerrymandering. In 2010 we enthusiastically supported Prop 20 which applied those districts to congressional elections.

Well, the results are in, and you can even see the maps in your voter guide. Due to action by the California Supreme Court, Prop 40 isn't really necessary to push these new districts into law, but what the heck, vote for it anyway.

Prop A - City College parcel tax - Yes

SF City College has lost $53 million in state funding over the last three years and Prop A hopes to plug the hole by creating a $79 parcel tax for eight years. One could argue that a parcel tax is not really the most ideal way to raise money because it taxes a small house the same as a mansion, for example. One of our members didn't like that it was going after property owners (although theoretically the cost will get passed to renters as well). But really, $79 is chump change compared to all the other taxes and costs associates with owning a property and the benefits are definitely flowing in the right direction. All but one of us voted yes.

Prop B - Parks bond - No

If you've gotten one of these emails before, you might notice something about us: we don't like bonds. Or at least we don't like it when bonds are used inappropriately. Bonds are often described as "having no fiscal impact," seemingly forgetting that the thing will have to be paid back in the future, plus interest.

Here is an example of a bond we would vote for: build a new park. It's a one-time cost with a benefit that stretches over many years, so paying for it over several years is reasonable.

Here's a bond we would not vote for: borrow money to do routine maintenance on a park, which is an ongoing expense and should be incorporated into the regular budget. Oh wait, I just described Prop B.

We love parks and we want money to be spent on them, but not with a bond. Find money in the budget or raise taxes instead.

Prop C - Affordable housing trust fund - Split

This would earmark tens of millions of dollars each year for the next 12 years to be used for affordable housing purposes. This action is largely in response to cutbacks in federal money we were getting for the same kinds of programs. We're not exactly pleased with how SF has implemented affordable housing, but many of us see its importance. Many of us also don't like earmarks, especially ones like this that only grab money from the city's budget without adding a new source of revenue.

So we split evenly down the middle on this one. Sorry readers, you're on your own this time.

Prop D - Election consolidation - Yes

San Francisco elects a few key city offices to four year terms, but staggers them two years apart. On one hand, some may think that splitting the elections up makes us focus on each race more. Others think they'd be more likely to pay attention if they were all done in same year, which is what Prop D would do.

We were not strongly for or against this one, but wound up just barely voting Yes. What probably tipped the scales was general agreement that consolidating the elections would save some money.

Prop E - Gross receipts tax - Yes

This may remind you of Prop 39 above. San Francisco currently taxes companies based on their payroll, not on their sales. So if you have a start-up, you pay tax on every employee even if you're not actually making any money yet. This is a disincentive for job creation in SF, so we're down to switch the tax over to gross receipts and encourage more hiring in The City.

Prop F - Hetch Hetchy study - No

When Hetch Hetchy Valley was dammed up back in 1923, John Muir wept. Or pounded his fist on a table. Or cursed for the first time in his life. OK, we don't actually know what his exact reaction was, but he didn't like it and had fought to prevent it from happening. Prop F would allow a study to be funded (up to $8 million) to investigate ways to return Hetch Hetchy to nature as well as write down a plan for water recycling and other ways for SF to use water better.

That sounds great, but we're feeling kind of strapped for cash right now. Also, we don't think there's going to be a reasonable alternative to Hetch Hetchy. Finally, even John Muir had to admit that the valley was seldom visited even when it was dry. Maybe we'll go on a camping trip out there, sleep beside the reservoir, and contemplate this more, but for now our answer is No.

Prop G - Oppose corporate personhood - Yes

This is a non-binding statement expressing the City's disapproval of the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission, which opened the door for unlimited corporate political contributions via Super PACs. Mark it yes, dude. Although kind of reminds me of a line from Animal House

Otter: I think this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody's part. 
Bluto: We're just the guys to do it.

Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein - Debaters only

We generally don't comment on candidates, but once again we want to say something about San Francisco's representatives who are running for re-election. Everyone knows that Pelosi and Feinstein are shoo-ins, including the candidates themselves who have not done any active campaigning. Nancy Pelosi doesn't even have an election website, and both have refused to debate.

This non-debating really bothers us. The only time an elected official can truly be made to defend their positions is when debating their opponent. We don't think of debating as simply a way to gain advantage over a challenger; it's also an important way to communicate with constituents, which is part of their job. As Matt Gonzalez wrote in an open letter to Pelosi two years ago, "A democratic society cannot flourish or long endure if our elected representatives avoid articulating and defending their views, or otherwise subjecting their political beliefs to public scrutiny."

And there are many reasons to scrutinize them. San Francisco is known as being ultra-liberal, but Pelosi seldom represents those views in Congress. Her Republican opponent, John Dennis, points out that she voted for a bill to allow American citizens to be detained indefinitely without trial. She also voted for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while her city was staging protests against them. Even if you are a fan of Pelosi's, wouldn't you like to hear her defend these choices?

So that is why we are encouraging people not to vote for Pelosi or Feinstein. Vote for their opponent or maybe just abstain. We want to start sending a message that our votes are not going to be given freely, but have to be earned.