Money Starts to Flow for Initiatives

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

It’s $6.5 million and counting for PG&E as the giant utility stockpiles cash for its effort to strangle the public power movement in California with a June ballot initiative.

In the other corner, packing an anemic bankroll of $10,000, is TURN, a utility reform group, and other public power advocates.

The $10,000 contribution, which was reported this week, is actually good news for the group. On Dec. 31, the war chest to oppose the PG&E juggernaut was a snappy $98.17.

Think of it as David versus Goliath, only this time Goliath is facing the shepherd’s sling with tanks and armored cars, along with plenty of cash to upgrade the weaponry.

The initiative, Prop. 16 on the June ballot, would require local governments to get two-thirds support from voters before providing power to any new customers. Since new local power customers would be the old PG&E customers, just figure the multi-million-dollar campaign as an insurance policy for the company to protect its revenues. If it wins, that is.

Although “Californians to Protect Our Right to Vote,” PG&E’s campaign organization, suggests that there’s also backing from “a coalition of taxpayers, environmentalists, renewable energy, business and labor,” every nickel so far has come from the utility company.

The campaign for an open primary, Prop. 14, is also going to attract some cash. The ballot measure would allow primary voters to choose any candidate, regardless of party, with the top two finishers meeting in the general election.

The measure already has taken in more than $400,000, including $100,000 from Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad and another $100,000 from Hewlett-Packard.

While the good government folks love the idea of an open primary, both the Republican and Democratic parties hate it, since it virtually eliminates the partisan primary. It also bans political parties from “endorsing, supporting or opposing” anyone running for non-partisan local offices, which both Democrats and Republicans have used as their farm teams.

Expect to see both parties pump money into the opposition effort.

But the money that’s going to be spent on the June ballot measures will barely be the opening ante in November, where a whole bunch of big bucks measures are making their way toward the ballot.

Just this week, for example, the California Teachers Association dumped $500,000 into a proposed ballot measure that would repeal some tax benefits for state businesses that were part of last year’s budget deal. The idea, of course, is that eliminating the tax breaks will leave more money for schools.

California enviros are also working to get a measure on the ballot that will boost the annual vehicle license fee by $18, with the money going to state parks. They’ve already raised around $1 million, including $500,000 from the Conservation Action Fund and $200,000 from Save the Redwoods.

The initiative to legalize marijuana in California will draw millions of dollars on each side, along with nationwide attention.

The mother of all the initiative battle could come from a new effort to ban public employee unions from using dues for political purposes without direct approval by their members.

Labor unions and other Democrat-friendly groups spent more than $44 million to defeat Prop. 75, a similar paycheck protection effort that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger put on the 2005 special election ballot. Expect the cash to fly if the new Republican-backed “Citizen Power Initiative” makes the November ballot.


John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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