Proposition 29: Will Money Buy Doubt?

There's an old axiom in California with respect to tax-related ballot propositions: Victory is likely only when support for passage approaches sixty percent upon election day.

Why sixty percent when only fifty percent plus one is required for victory? Because when it comes to money issues, some "yes" voters get skittish at the end of the campaign and vote the other way.

That simple, time-tested formula may be playing out with Proposition 29, the ballot proposal that would add one dollar to the cost of each package of cigarettes, with the $800 million or so collected annually designated for cancer research.

Never mind that California ranks 33rd in tobacco taxes and that there is a tight correlation between increased taxes and decreased smoking. Proposition 29 is nonetheless a tax, even if it is user-based.

Which takes us back to the sixty percent rule.

According to a recently released statewide survey by the respected Public Policy Institute of California, 53 percent of the voters now support Proposition 29, while 42 percent oppose the measure.

Clearly, that breakdown falls well below the traditional success threshold. Even more persuasive is the direction of changing public opinion. Last March, the PPIC found that 67 percent favored Proposition 29, with 30 percent opposed.

Other surveys show different outcomes--some with greater differentials, others with less--but the PPIC survey is an excellent measuring stick because of its consistent methodology and historic accuracy.

What is the "intervening variable," as social scientists like to say? Most likely money. The tobacco-led forces against the tax have poured about $48 million into a very effective campaign, about four times the amount spent by the health industry-oriented supporters.  

Most of the arguments by the "no" side have been pure bunk, but at least one is probably resonating with an electorate that is weary from huge annual budget deficits and massive program cuts.

The “no” forces say the measure is flawed because it sets up a big new tax – raising an anticipated $800 million per year – for cancer research, without earmarking any of the money to fill the $16 billion gap in the state’s general fund budget.

It's an idea that has left many "iffy" voters with just enough doubt to have those second thoughts which disproportionately translate into "no" votes.

Will Proposition 29 pass in spite of the onslaught by tobacco? We'll know soon enough. But if the proposition fails, it won't be just because of a huge financial infusion. Rather, it will be because of an anti-tax electorate looking for the argument to say "no." 

Stay tuned.

Larry Gerston teaches political science at San Jose State University and is the political analyst at NBC Bay Area.

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