What Will the Propositions Cost?

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

All statewide ballot measures receive an analysis from the Department of Finance and the Legislative Analyst’s Office as to the fiscal effects of the initiatives. That got me wondering what it would cost Californians if in the unlikely event an unrestrained electorate decided to vote Yes on all 17 measures.

Truth be told, it is more likely that the voters reject a larger share of the ballot measures. In fact, throughout the state’s history, two out of three initiatives that make the ballot fail. Still it is interesting to know what we could be facing if the unusual happens. After all, the Cubs won the World Series, so you never know if something unexpected happens. Maybe voters will vote yes on all. It wouldn’t be unprecedented. On the 1911 special election ballot, 22 out of 23 measures passed.

In trying to calculate the cost of ballot measures, even the experts at Finance and LAO have trouble. You’ll find the words “uncertain” and “unknown” and “depends” scattered about the fiscal effect sections attached to many of the propositions.

Some measures are easy to tabulate. The Proposition 51 school bond will cost $17.6 billion to pay the principal and interest, or $500 million a year for 35 years. The legislative transparency initiative, Proposition 54 will require a couple of million start up money for recording equipment and an on-going additional million for staff and storage of videos.

The tax measures can also be tagged with numbers, although Proposition 55’s take calculated between $4 and $9 billion depends on the economy. Proposition 56’s tobacco tax is expected to bring in $1.3 to $1.6 billion at first. However, a drop off is predicted when consumers react negatively to the additional tax on smoking products.

The marijuana legalization measure, Proposition 64, comes with a tax and the fiscal effect could be a billion dollars to the state and more to local governments that apply a local tax to cannabis. There are also regulatory and health service costs associated with legalizing marijuana along with the potential for cost savings with fewer incarcerations.

Proposition 61 dedicated to placing a spending cap on drug costs is specifically designed to save the state money. But hold on a second, say the fiscal watchdogs. Uncertainty is a watchword here. According to the fiscal analysis, “drug manufacturers would likely take actions that mitigate the impact of the measure.” The fiscal effects of this measure were officially summed up as “unknown.”

Also, pretty much unknown is the fiscal effect of Propositions 52 and 53. Prop 52, the hospital fees for Medi-Cal matched by Federal money received its “uncertain” designation because there was no telling if the legislature would continue this fee on its own. Prop 53, requiring a vote on revenue bonds, also was labeled “unknown” because not many projects would qualify as needing $2 billion in revenue bonds. If that were the case, the analysis suggested there would be ways around the $2 billion standard by breaking projects into smaller parts.

Increased court and law enforcement costs could run into the tens of millions of dollars under the new gun and ammo regulations offered by Proposition 63.

Elimination of the death penalty could reduce costs to the state about $150 million. However, one of those “depends” is applied to Proposition 62—the dollars could be higher or lower depending on a number of factors such as whether the change in law would affect the murder rate and the need for prison construction.

Meanwhile, the counter measure to allow death penalty cases to limit appeals, Prop 66, also got an “uncertain” price tag depending on how the state dealt with issues such as availability of attorneys, complexity of legal challenges and more.

Gov. Brown’s Proposition 57 parole changes could see net state savings by reducing the state’s prison population. However, county costs are projected to increase because more former prisoners will be supervised on parole and other factors, an estimated few million dollars increase annually.

The condom regulations of Proposition 60 would likely reduce tax revenue according to analysts because the adult film industry might pack up and leave the state. If not, new fees required of film producers would likely cover enforcement costs.

The referendum on banning plastic bags would have little effect on revenues, while its companion measure, Proposition 65 would increase state revenues by diverting the cost of carry out backs from grocers to a state fund.

The last two measures to discuss were not initiatives but put on the ballot by legislators. Proposition 58 would make changes to the English immersion education laws and Proposition 59 would advise elected officials to work to overturn the Citizens United court case. Here the legislators earn kudos for having little the fiscal effects. The English-only reform fiscal effect is considered minor. The prize goes to Prop 59 in which the fiscal effect summary reads in full: “This measure would have no direct fiscal effect on state and local governments.” No uncertainties here.

My intention was to go through the fiscal effect calculations and come up with a number after additions and subtractions if all the measures passed to see what taxpayers could be on the hook for or what state and local governments would take in. However, given all the “uncertainties,” “unknowns” and “it depends,” it is impossible to calculate.

Knowing the fiscal effects of the ballot measures seem to fall in line with Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi’s oft quoted line about the Affordable Care Act: “We have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it.”

Or in this instance—what it costs.

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