Dejà vu in the voting booth

By Thomas Elias

California voters can be excused if they feel a strong sense of dejà vu, or been-there-done-that, when they look over the 12 state propositions on the Nov. 4 ballot.

That’s because they’ve seen at least five of these propositions before, including the two most controversial current items. Those would be Propositions 4 and 8, one to require parental notification at least 48 hours before any girl under 18 can get an abortion, the other to eliminate any rights to marriage for same-sex couples.

Twice before, in 2005 and 2006, voters turned down parental notification, but both times it was by margins so narrow that anti-abortion forces were never discouraged, leading them to come back again and again.

So the votes on these two propositions will say a lot about how societal mores have changed - or not - over the last eight years or so in California.

If Proposition 8 loses, as some polls suggest it will, or even if it wins narrowly, as others indicate might happen, that would represent a sea change in public acceptance of gays and lesbians and a new sense that they are and should be complete equals in society.

And if Proposition 4 wins, it will demonstrate significant movement away from a previous narrow consensus in California that all females, regardless of age, should be completely free to choose whether or not to carry a baby to term.

No such broad social implications will be implied by the outcomes on most of this election’s 10 other propositions. But some are still quite familiar.

Children’s hospitals, for one interest group, are back looking for more public money four years after winning $750 million in bond funds via the 2004 Proposition 61. They want voters to add $980 million to the state’s debt when they haven’t spent even half their previous pot. Some might question the wisdom of authorizing this much more money for institutions that can’t figure out how to spend what they already have.

Meanwhile, some of this fall’s more unique propositions might also reveal significant trends in public attitudes. Example A might be Proposition 2, which would require that egg-laying chickens, veal calves and other animals bred primarily for their food value be kept in cages or enclosures that allow full extension of their limbs or wings for the majority of each day. Every major business group in California opposes this one, claiming it would drive the egg industry out of state, making eggs and other staple foods more expensive. A victory for this one would indicate a major change in public attitudes toward animal rights.

Then there are Propositions 7 and 10, both alternative energy measures sponsored by out-of-state billionaires. Proposition 7, primarily backed by University of Phoenix founder John Sperling and his son Peter, both Arizona residents, demands that half California’s power come from alternative sources by 2025. By contrast, current state mandates would require 30 percent renewables by 2020. Sperling and his associates claim their proposition would rapidly accelerate alternative energy development. The widely outspent opponents, including most of the state’s current independent producers of wind, geothermal, biomass and solar energy, say this measure might drive them out of business by forcing utilities to create their own massive facilities.

And then there’s Proposition 10, a proposed $5 billion bond issue that would primarily fund purchases of alternative fuel vehicles, particularly those running on compressed natural gas. This one would most benefit a company run by Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens, who paid to get it onto the ballot is virtually the only source of funding for its big-money campaign.

The dejà vu aspect for Propositions 7 and 10 is that they are far from the first California propositions funded by out of state interests. Big-dollar contributors from the Tobacco Institute to radical politician Lyndon LaRouche and liberal financier George Soros all have run proposition drives, with mixed results.

The guess here is the results this time will also be a mixed bag, leaving plenty of room for conjecture on their overall meaning.