California Progressives Take the Offensive
By Randy Shaw BeyondChron September 24, 2012
The November 2012 elections represent an historic
turning point for California progressives. After years
of declining state revenue and out of control prison
spending, progressives are finally seizing the
initiative and using state ballot measures to move the
state forward. Prop 30, Governor Brown's tax measure,
is the best-known initiative, and will raise $6 billion
annually. Prop 34, which ends the costly death penalty,
and Prop 36, which modifies the unaffordable "Three
Strikes" law, also address California's longstanding
revenue shortfall by redirecting hundreds of millions
of dollars each year from prisons to education, health
care, urban police staffing and other critical needs.
Prop 39 has gotten less attention, but it helps build
the state's future by eliminating $1 billion in
corporate loopholes and redirecting the money to green
energy programs and green jobs. And Prop 37, which
requires the labeling of genetically modified foods, is
already being viewed as a national model. It's long
overdue, but California progressives are finally using
state initiatives to achieve progressive change.
California politics are a paradox: despite no
Republicans holding statewide office and Democrats
controlling the legislative for years, a combination of
voter-approved ballot measures and a 2/3 requirement
for legislative tax hikes have prevented the state from
moving forward. I argued in June 2009 that
"Progressives Bear Blame for California's Woes,"
http://tinyurl.com/9mtga78because they knew that they
had to win state ballot measures to achieve their goals
yet failed to even put progressive initiatives on the
Many progressives openly doubted their ability to win
state initiatives, convinced that big money opposition
would prevail. In contrast, conservatives have used
ballot measures to control state tax and spending
policies, reducing the power of Democratic-controlled
state legislative bodies.
All that has now changed in 2012. While progressives
will be forced to invest major resources in defeating
Prop 32, the other major ballot initiatives all put
conservatives on the defensive and would further
progressive change. Most importantly, we have measures
that shift resources from prisons to more people
serving needs, reversing California's misguided and
costly criminal justice strategy.
Fiscal Healing: Props 34 and 36
California Democrats have been on the defensive on
crime issues since at least the 1982 Governor's
election, in which Republican George Deukmejian focused
on crime to win an upset victory. Gray Davis made sure
in 1998 that he would be immune from "soft on crime"
charges, backing a multi-billion dollar build up of the
state's prison industrial complex.
California voters backed "three strikes" and other
costly criminal justice "reforms," and current Governor
Jerry Brown joined with then Governor Schwarzenegger in
narrowly defeating a three strikes reform initiative in
2004. But in typical California progressive fashion,
this narrow defeat did not prompt progressives to
return to the ballot---until Prop 36 this November.
By limiting the life sentence requirement for a "third
strike" to serious or violent felonies, the non-
partisan Legislative Analyst's Office projects that
Prop 36 will save the state between $70-100 million
annually. That's nearly one billion dollars over the
next decade that would shift from imprisoning for life
those stealing a loaf of bread to addressing vital
There's obviously a moral and policy rationale for
revising three strikes----nobody should get life
imprisonment for a nonviolent property crime---but in
this climate it seems that the money savings is Prop
36's strongest selling point. Fortunately, the Yes on
36 effort is headed by Ace Smith, California's best
campaign manager, which means the measure is quite
likely to prevail (a recent poll found 73% of
respondents supporting changes to three strikes).
Prop 34's effort to repeal the state's death penalty
would have been deemed a sure loser only a decade ago,
but times have changed. California has executed 13
people since voters reinstated the death penalty in
1978, and it takes 25 years of massive financial costs
for a death sentence to lead to execution.
California has spent $4 billion on death penalty cases,
or $300 million per execution. This same period has
seen draconian cuts to public education and massive
tuition hikes for students attending state colleges and
According to the Legislative Analyst, Proposition 34
will save California voters $130 million a year. Add
these savings to those from Prop 36 and the $6 billion
annually that Prop 30 will generate and we are talking
about finally moving the state in a progressive fiscal
Prop 37: Truth in Labeling
What starts in California often goes national, which is
why Monsanto and other large corporations profiting
from genetically engineered foods are spending record
sums to defeat Prop 37. Prominent food writer Mark
Bittman has already highlighted how Prop 37's passage
could impact national practices, describing Prop 37 as
"unquestionably among the most important non-national
votes this year."
After environmentalists and health activists had to
devote considerable resources to defeating the
Chevron-backed Prop 23 in 2010, it's great to see
progressives putting corporate giants like Monsanto,
Dupont, Nestle, Pepsico and Coca Cola on the defensive.
And considering that Prop 37 does not bar any practices
but simply requires disclosure, it puts the chemical
industry and corporate food producers in the position
of arguing that people do not have the right to know
about what they are eating.
Prop 37 is not the type of complex, no chance to win
measure that progressives have too often put on the
ballot despite knowing that it has no chance to
overcome big-money opposition. In fact, the reason
these corporations are pouring tens of millions of
dollars into defeating Prop 37 is that 91% of voters
who hear about it favor such disclosure.
In addition to the benefits of truth in labeling, Prop
37 also diverts millions these corporations would be
spending on the wrong side of other progressive
Prop 39: Closing Corporate Loopholes
Voters will also get the chance to pass Prop 39, which
ends a tax loophole enjoyed by out of state
corporations like Chrysler, General Motors,
International Paper and Kimberly-Clark and shift the
savings to green energy projects and creating green
This brilliant idea comes from a Tom Steyer, a
billionaire hedge fund manager based in San Francisco.
Steyer has donated $21.9 million toward the initiative,
and it sure is nice to see a hedge fund manager doing
something positive with their money.
What's strategically impressive about Prop 39 is that
it was essentially a placeholder in case the
Legislature did not pass AB 1500. That bill would have
used the tax loophole savings to reduce tuition for
working and middle class college students.
Because Steyer and his crowd were thinking proactively,
AB 1500's failure to get 2/3 approval in the
legislature (Republicans preferring to keep a "no tax"
pledge over helping college students) did not let the
corporate loophole escape. By passing Prop 39, voters
can create green jobs rather than help out of state
corporations who will be spending millions to save
their billion- dollar loophole.
Thanks to progressives' new pro-active approach, the
long Republican stranglehold on California's future may
soon end. ___________________
Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He is the author
of The Activist's Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar
Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the
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