Does Death Penalty Repeal Have a Prop 29 Problem?

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Prop 29, the cigarette-tax-for-cancer-research initiative, had trouble attracting some natural supporters (those who support cigarette taxes) because it locked up the money it raised outside the general fund, giving money to cancer research when more important state programs are cash-starved.

Don’t look now, but there’s a November ballot initiative that’s vulnerable in a similar way: the measure to repeal the death penalty.

The death penalty remains popular in California, but this initiative has a strong chance of winning because it has a broad coalition and because it has focused its argument on money. The death penalty costs too much in a cash-strapped state, and ending it will save money.

That’s true. But there’s a problem: some of the money the initiative would save by ending the death penalty doesn’t stay in the budget.

Instead, the initiative would direct savings out of the general fund and into a special $100 million fund to be controlled by the attorney general. (The attorney general’s control is not mentioned in the title and summary drafted by the attorney general, by the way—probably just an oversight). That money would go to a good cause– solving more cases. But it’s money that might otherwise go back to the cash-strapped general fund and the programs it supports.

This is a potential problem for an initiative – particularly because it’s on a ballot during an election season that should be dominated by discussions of taxes and the ill health of the budget. Indeed, a big piece of the argument between Gov. Jerry Brown and Molly Munger is about this same issue; whether new tax money should go into the general fund or whether it should bypass the general fund (to go to the schools, as Munger suggests).

If this does create problems for the death penalty initiative, it will be more of the rough justice that Prop 29 experienced. For years, the political industry around initiatives has fashioned measures to avoid political problems. One big reason why you tie up initiative-created money in a special fund is to pre-empt the argument that the money will just go to “the politicians.”

Perhaps this is wishful thinking, but it appears a significant segment of the electorate – left-of-center folks who are sympathetic to taxes and progressive programs – are starting to see this for the bad policy it is. And they are starting to understand that decades of tying up money in this way is one reason why core programs are so starved for cash. Losing this voter segment could be the difference between victory and defeat for progressive-oriented measures, as Prop 29’s supporters just learned.

The real question now is when the balance of California progressives will wise up, stop feeding the populist (anti-politician) sentiment, give up on special funds and deals, and make the case for broad public programs and the value of political give-and-take over how California spends money.

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