Prop 23, climate change, and our broken proposition system

Proposition 23, which will be on the California ballot in November, seeks to effectively abolish the landmark AB32 bill. Also known as the Global Warming Solutions Act, AB32 passed in 2006 and was strongly supported by Gov. Schwarzenegger.

It requires that greenhouse gas emission levels be cut to 1990 levels by 2020. It does have a provision that the governor can suspend the act under “extraordinary circumstances” which include economic bad times. However, Schwarzenegger has said he will not suspend it. If passed, the proposition would suspend provisions of AB32 until California unemployment drops below 5.5% for four consecutive quarters.

Since this virtually never happens, Prop 23 would in effect kill AB32. 

Proponents of Prop 23 are calling it the ‘California Jobs Initiative,’ saying that AB32 will cost California 1.1 million jobs. Opponents counter that cleantech and renewable energy will create many new jobs. Both sides are right. It is the very nature of destructive technologies that some job sectors are eliminated while entire new ones are created. 

Prop 23 will probably be one of the most contentious and visible of the propositions. It is expected to be the most expensive, with huge amounts of money already rolling in on both sides.  It is also a highly polarizing proposition and is one of the few instances in this dismal campaign season where there are genuine and clear-cut differences between the major candidates.

Likely voters for Jerry Brown and Barbara Boxer strongly oppose Prop 23, while those favoring Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina also favor it. Independent voters strongly oppose Prop 23. So, if Brown and Boxer can link their opponents to opposing climate change legislation, then they could pick up crucial independent votes.  This could decide the election, especially for the faltering Jerry Brown. 

‘Follow the money’ is always good advice in politics. So far, and it’s still early in the campaign, millions of dollars have been raised by the pro- and anti-forces. Prop 23 was sponsored by two oil companies, Tesoro and Valero Energy. They ponied up $3.3 million to get it on the ballot. Much of the money went for paying for signatures.

If the proposition process is supposed to be about citizen democracy, then paying signature gatherers to get people to sign the petition is contrary to the stated goal of grassroots citizen participation. Sometimes they are paid several dollars per signature and have no particular interest in the issue. In my view, the system needs to be amended so that petition gatherers are unpaid. 

Deep-pocketed environmental groups are also contributing heavily, with the Natural Resources Defense Council alone giving almost one million. PG&E also opposes it. “I expect this to be the most expensive initiative on the November ballot,” says an expert on initiatives, with many more millions expected to flow in.

Again, how is this about citizen democracy? Two corporations with a vested interest fund a proposition and other corporations, special interest groups, and PACs fund the opposition. 

Our growing problem is that the citizen is nowhere to be seen in this process. Clearly, the California proposition process is so gamed and compromised that the original (and noble) goal of giving ordinary citizens a way to directly influence government is long gone and absent. Instead, we have well-funded special interests paying for the version of democracy they want to have implemented.

That’s hardly democracy at all. And the grassroots are nowhere to be seen.