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Is It Money or Message That's Hurting Prop 29?

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    T. Boone Pickens has been on a crusade pushing to move the American economy away from foreign sources of oil and reducing carbon emissions.

    There is an unthinking assumption in every analysis I can read about Prop 29, the cigarette-tax-for-cancer-research initiative that appears to have lost a big lead in the polls.

    That assumption is that the big money spent against the measure by tobacco companies is responsible for the drop. It seems obvious, since big tobacco has spent more than $40 million to defeat it, mostly on ads that attack the initiative.

    But I've yet to see data connecting the tobacco ads to the decline in Prop 29. And given recent California political history, it's not a safe assumption to say that the money is what's defeating the measure.

    Consider two recent ballot initiatives that had huge financial support behind them -- and no money spent against them.

    In 2008, the billionaire oilman T. Boone Pickens sponsored Prop 10, an initiative that would have used billions in general obligation funds to subsidize alternative fuels and natural gas (Pickens had huge investments in natural gas).

    Pickens spent millions on the campaign -- while the campaign against the initiative had virtually no money (official reports suggest Pickens outspent his foes 100-1). But Prop 10 lost -- because reporting by newspapers and other media emphasized the potential budget folly of devoting g.o. bonds in bad budget times to a particular energy policy, as well as Pickens' own financial interest in his measure.

    In 2010, the utility PG&E sponsored an initiative, Prop 16, that would limit the ability of California local governments to start their own public power.

    PG&E spent more than $40 million; the campaign against the measure had virtually no money.

    But once again, the message about the problems of this kind governance (PG&E's measure imposed another kind of supermajority restriction on the powers of local elected officials in a supermajority-mad state) broke through via media coverage and the Internet. Message defeated money and Prop 16 lost.

    There are a couple of political lessons from this that may apply to Prop 29.

    First, it's relatively easy -- even with almost no money -- to raise doubts about an initiative. Second, it can be possible to defeat even a well-financed initiative if opponents can point to problems that the initiative would create for the budget process or governance -- a powerful argument when California is in the midst of a budget and governance crisis.

    Prop 29's supporters may want to blame its troubles on the evil tobacco companies and their money; if the initiative were merely a choice between tobacco companies and cancer research, Prop 29 would be an easy winner.

    But it may well be that the bigger problem for Prop 29 supporters has been newspapers and media folks (including this blogger) pointing out that the measure -- while making sense as tax policy and public health policy -- is bad budget policy because it locks up tax dollars that might be better applied to core, cash-starved health and education programs in the state.

    That explanation would fit the polls, which show that Prop 29's support has dropped even though cigarette taxes remain popular with the public, and even though Californians don't like tobacco companies.

    If Prop 29 loses, pundits should think twice about blaming tobacco companies and their money for defeat. A better reason may be the problems with Prop 29 itself -- and the larger context of a broken budget and an ungovernable state.

    Lead Prop Zero blogger Joe Mathews is California editor at Zocalo Public Square, a fellow at Arizona State University’s Center for Social Cohesion, and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (University of California, 2010).

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