Prop 29 Debate Should Focus on Policy

Joel Fox
Editor of Fox & Hounds and President of the Small Business Action Committee

The Yes on Proposition 29 tobacco tax campaign unveiled new advertisements yesterday, highlighting the issue of money. The Yes side points the finger at tobacco companies for funding the No campaign to the tune of $40-million. The Yes side says their campaign is about health, but it’s also about money, as well. For voters, the focus should be on policy — what the measure does and how it works.

Money is a concern for both sides of the debate. If Proposition 29 passes, initially nearly $800-million dollars shifts over to supporters of the initiative to control and even to benefit from. While the money goes into research it also goes to researchers and institutions, which support the project.

Stanton Glantz, director of the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at UC San Francisco, who has written in favor of Prop 29 on this site, was quoted in the Daily Californian, “It’ll have a direct impact on UC Berkeley and UCSF because there will be a lot of money put into research, and some part of that will be done at the University of California and at UCSF.”

Given that both sides have an interest and/or a concern for money changing hands, voters ought to concentrate on the public policy questions involved with the measure.

While the Yes side argues smoking will be curtailed as a policy benefit, the measure at the same time builds a new program and infrastructure that will be funded by a diminishing revenue source. This likely effect is backed up by Proposition 29, itself, which allows revenue to be shifted over to funds created by previous tobacco tax measures, which the authors acknowledge will lose revenue because of falling tobacco sales. Another example of one California government fund borrowing from another in a seemingly never-ending cycle.

But the bigger question is: Should California continue down the road of ballot-box budgeting in which funds are set aside for special purposes and cannot be altered no matter the fiscal condition of the state?

A number of outside observers think this is a bad policy.

The Ventura County Star editorialized:

“Yet, it (Prop 29) doesn’t provide adequate oversight for the public funds. It lacks sufficient controls to prevent misuse, such as financial grants to organizations whose representatives will sit on the board of political appointees that will dole out the funds. Proposition 29 doesn’t require the research funds to be spent in California or even in the United States. Besides being an example of “ballot-box budgeting,” this measure would set up a new bureaucracy beyond the reach of state regulators and other state authorities.”

In taking a position opposed to Proposition 29, the Los Angeles Times wrote, “Proposition 29 is well intentioned, but it just doesn’t make sense for the state to get into the medical research business to the tune of half a billion dollars a year when it has so many other important unmet needs.” And: “structurally it doesn’t make sense either: Medical research benefits everyone in the country — not just Californians — which is why taxpayer money to support it logically comes from the federal government.”

From the Modesto Bee, “There would be an annual audit of the agency, but no clear way for the state — the Legislature, the governor or anyone — to fix any flaws or problems that became evident. Of even greater concern to us is that Proposition 29 is another example of ballot-box budgeting — earmarking tax revenue that can only be used for a narrow purpose and ignoring higher and more pressing priorities for the state as a whole.”

The policy issues should not be lost in the debate over money.

(Full disclosure: My organization is officially opposed to Proposition 29.)

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