Let’s look at this year’s ballot propositions as the Billionaire’s Election. While its not unheard of for the very rich to indulge in politics, no less than four of the 17 ballot measures have billionaire backers whose dollars helped get the propositions on the ballot.
Proposition 53 would require a vote of the people for revenue bonds over $2 billion. Tomato farmer Dino Cortopassi funded the signature campaign. While opponents accuse him of using the proposal as a way to thwart the plan for Delta Tunnels that would move water away from his farming operations to southern California, Cortopassi says his goal is to restrict a growing debt in California. Indeed, he ran full page newspaper ads in the past expressing concern about government management and increased debt.
Proposition 54 would establish new rules on legislation, requiring that all bills be in print 72 hours before a final vote in taken. Legislative hearings could also be filmed. Charles Munger Jr. is the chief funder of this effort. One of the goals of the initiative is to eliminate the legislative practice of “gut-and-amend” bills, in which the content of a bill is ripped out after it has nearly completed its legislative journey to be replaced by new and unrelated content that is quickly voted on and becomes law. Munger has been involved with other ballot initiative created reforms over the years that affect the legislature including the establishment of the redistricting commission.
Proposition 56 is a dramatic tax increase on tobacco. Former hedge fund billionaire turned environmentalist Tom Steyer donated millions to help get this measure on the ballot. He says he did so because he saw how cigarette smoking affected his mother’s health. Steyer is also featured in pro-56 ads as he extends his reach into issues beyond his original environmental platform fueling speculation that he intends to run for governor of California.
Proposition 64 would legalize marijuana. The measure got a financial boost from Sean Parker of file-sharing software Napster fame who has donated over $7 million to the cause. He has been involved in various political activities over the years. His opponents claim Parker’s intention is to get into the marijuana business if it is legalized, which the a marijuana campaign spokesman denies.
Billionaire involvement in California’s direct democracy system can certainly change the issues that voters consider. Ultimately, the super rich have the wherewithal to present ideas or concerns they have before the public by paying professional signature gatherers and consultants, an advantage the average citizen does not enjoy.
However, there is no certainty that voters will buy what the rich are selling.
While big dollar players in the initiative field have the ability to qualify a measure for the ballot, there is no guarantee their money can convince enough voters to support their cause.
University of Michigan professor Elisabeth Gerber’s oft-cited research on the issue says there is no evidence that “that economic interest groups buy policy outcomes through the direct legislation process.” Gerber writes that it is more likely that big money can help defeat a measure on the ballot than can push a measure to victory.
California has seen a number of one-sided big money campaigns pushing an initiative that failed. One recent example was the 2010 Proposition 16 put forth by Pacific Gas & Electric Company. Fearing that local governments would set up their own power companies and take business away from PG&E, the company sponsored an initiative requiring a two-thirds vote of local residents to approve any government run power agency. Despite spending over $46 million in support of Prop 16 while opponents spent a meager $100,000, the measure was defeated.
Still, with California the leading state in which billionaires call home – 124 of them according to a Forbes magazine calculation this year – future ballots could be filled with measures reflecting concerns or gripes of the super wealthy.
Voters will still have the final call.