SAN FRANCISCO -- In this election season, when voters seem more fed up than ever with politicians, Californians once again are taking matters into their own hands with their favorite device -- the ballot initiative that allows them to end-run their legislature.
This year's menu of propositions placed on the ballot by voter petition is a mixture of perseverance, vindictiveness and sheer audacity, seen in three initiatives known as Props 186, 187 and 188.
Prop 186 takes up the fight for single-payer health care reform that never got off the ground in this year's failed effort to enact any federal reforms. According to Bill Zimmerman, a Santa Monica consultant heading the effort, California voters historically have turned to the ballot initiative when frustrated, and they are "angry at lobbyists and Congress" over the fate of health reform.
As in the federal fight, insurance companies are aggressively opposing Prop 186, using some of the same techniques that worked for them at the federal level, including ads in which a married couple finds fault with the proposed plan. Zimmerman says his polls indicate about half the voters remain undecided.
Prop 187, riding the current wave of resentment toward illegal immigrants in the state, would deny them non-emergency health care and welfare and drop their children from the public schools. It would also require local and state agencies to report "suspected" illegals to state and federal authorities. After early support for it, polls show opponents closing the gap by arguing that the initiative is not only cruel, but costly in the long run.
Prop 188, bankrolled by leading tobacco companies, would override a statewide law passed this year banning smoking in most indoor workplaces. It would permit smoking in areas
meeting ventilation standards -- set largely by the tobacco industry. The proponents call themselves -- are you ready? -- Californians for Statewide Smoking Restrictions.
Of the three, Prop 187 has generated by far the most attention and heat. Endorsed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, seeking re-election on a get-tough platform on illegal immigrants, the initiative jumped to an early lead generated by heavy advertising by a group that calls itself SOS -- for Save Our State. Providing these services, it charges, is breaking the state financially.
Foes of Prop 187 have just started airing radio ads statewide, and Scott MacDonald, part of the consulting firm running the anti-Prop 187 campaign, says support has dropped in one poll to only 53 percent.
MacDonald charges that "white supremacists" have contributed heavily to the effort to cut off the benefits to illegals, a charge Pat Skain of SOS says is "totally baseless" and "a smear tactic," insisting that SOS is a pure grass-roots effort.
Dr. Tom Peters, director of health and human services for Marin County just north of here, calls Prop 187 "one of the most ill-advised and dangerous suggestions for public policy I've seen in 20 years in California."
Rather than saving the state money, he says, the cutoff would prove to be incredibly costly. There would be, he says, "an immediate threat to public health" by denying immunizations to children and treatment to ill and contagious individuals. And turning an estimated 300,000 children and teen-agers out of the schools and onto the streets, he says, would greatly compound social problems, including higher teen-age crime.
Peters acknowledges that the problem of illegal immigrants and their drain on public funds is a major one. But he argues that Prop 187 will do nothing to impede the flow over the borders from Mexico. Proponents argue, however, that if benefits are cut off, fewer Mexicans will cross.
Conservative Republican Ron Unz, who got a third of the GOP primary vote against Wilson, calls Prop 187 "crazy," saying it would imprison a mother who concealed her illegal status to keep her kids in school.
The fate of Prop 187 may rest on how resentful white legal residents of California now feel toward illegals, who in better economic times were welcomed as domestics in their upper-class and middle-class homes. But as voters understand the ramifications of acting so harshly on their resentments, Peters says, "the thing is turning."