California May Veer Left in Votes on Bullets, Tax and Executions

  • Top donor Steyer wants to ‘roll back the Reagan Revolution’
  • Ballot presents a chance to reclaim status as liberal redoubt

California voters, who’ve watched as Massachusetts and Colorado leaped ahead on causes such as gay marriage and legal marijuana, could restore its role as a laboratory of liberal policy-making with ballot measures to end capital punishment, boost taxes, require background checks to buy bullets and limit drug prices.

The push to regain California’s reputation as the nation’s progressive stronghold is being aided by billionaire hedge-fund founder Tom Steyer, who has poured more than $17 million into five of the 17 questions on the ballot next week. The measures also may be aided by a 2011 state law that puts initiatives before voters only in November, when turnout among Democrats is highest.

"What we’re really looking to do is roll back the Reagan revolution" of conservatism, Steyer said in a telephone interview. "We have a big issue in California with adapting to the 21st century. Part of this ballot is to help us adapt to the 21st century."

California, the most populous U.S. state, has been a bellwether for liberal political issues nationwide. It was the first to adopt its own standards on vehicle emissions and to allow medicinal marijuana use. Now, polls show voters are leaning toward legalizing recreational pot, capping pharmaceutical prices, restricting ammunition purchases and increasing taxes on cigarettes and the most wealthy.

Success in the Golden State could inspire similar measures around the country, moving the issues from the fringes to the mainstream, said Cristina Uribe, the California director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which promotes liberal ballot causes.

Click here for a list of California’s 17 propositions.

California had in some respects pulled back from the liberal vanguard. Though it allowed marijuana to treat medical conditions 20 years ago, Washington and Colorado were the first to permit recreational pot use. Its cigarette tax of 87 cents per pack ranks only 37th among states. New York and Washington, D.C., were ahead of California in raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, although New York’s minimum applies only in New York City. Eight states have abolished capital punishment in the past decade, while another four have imposed moratoriums.

While Democrats have held every statewide office since 2011 and controlled both houses of the legislature since 1997, voters in recent years have shifted policies in a more conservative direction, approving measures banning same-sex marriage and denying public services to undocumented immigrants, and twice rejecting ones to allow recreational marijuana and to abolish the death penalty.

This time with turnout in their favor and Steyer as a patron, left-leaning partisans see a chance for broad success.

"California’s ballot is the most proactive from a progressive standpoint that we’ve seen," Uribe said. "What happens here will have tremendous importance throughout the country."

Californians favor the measures to legalize marijuana, raise cigarette taxes and reinstate the nation’s highest income tax on the wealthy, according to polls by the Public Policy Institute of California in October and the University of Southern California and Los Angeles Times in September. The USC poll found the measure on capping drug prices leading, while a majority were opposed to ending the death penalty.

Related Story: Marijuana Vote in California May Herald End of Prohibition Era

In total, the ballot campaigns have attracted almost $500 million in contributions from supporters and opponents, a state record. No person has put more money individually into the election than Steyer.

"Win, lose or draw, when it comes to ballot measures and individual campaigns in California, clearly Tom Steyer is the Democrats’ most valuable player," said Jim Brulte, chairman of the California Republican Party.

State Republicans don’t have a donor on par with Steyer, a key hindrance in a state whose size means most ballot campaigns cost more than $10 million. The largest conservative individual donor, Charles Munger Jr., gave $10.7 million in support of a measure that would prohibit lawmakers from passing bills without disclosing the contents of the legislation at least 72 hours in advance.

Tobacco companies led by Altria Group Inc. and Reynolds American Inc. have spent more than $70 million opposing the Steyer-backed cigarette-tax increase, and pharmaceutical companies including Merck & Co. Inc. and Pfizer Inc. have spent more than $70 million against a measure to limit the amount agencies pay for prescription drugs to the same amount paid by the federal government. The AIDS Healthcare Foundation is the measure’s major financial backer.

In addition to the statewide proposition, voters in California’s largest cities will consider measures backed by advocates for the homeless and those who ride buses and trains in a state defined by the automobile. Los Angeles County’s ballot includes higher taxes for parks, public transit and housing for the homeless, while San Diego’s includes a sales-tax increase to expand mass transit and preserve open space. San Francisco voters will decide whether to increase their sales taxes, impose a levy on sugared beverages, and issue bonds for affordable housing.

While California’s Democratic legislative majorities, with the backing of Governor Jerry Brown, have increased the minimum wage, expanded overtime for farm workers, and mandated more renewable energy, the November ballot offers Californians a chance to slide left of their legislators, said Thad Kousser, who teaches political science at the University of California at San Diego.

"This is part of California moving from a purple state to a dark blue state," Kousser said. "The ballot box is often used to react to the legislature, to correct it if they move too far to the left. That’s not the case here."

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