Populist governor Hiram Johnson gave Californians the ballot initiative one hundred and one years ago to combat the stranglehold of wealthy scions over the statehouse. Today's New York Times reports on how California's ballot measures are dominated by a handful of billionaires, including some trying to buy more power for themselves and their companies. Call it The Billionaire Ballot.
In modern history there has been no slate of ballot measures with so much concentrated wealth behind it. But can we judge a ballot measure by the billionaire behind it? It depends what the billionaire wants.
Here's a populist guide to the Good, Bad and Ugly of California's Billionaire Ballot:
The U G L Y: Two insurance billionaires are the big funding behind Proposition 32 and 33. Both initiatives have been rejected before. The tens of millions being poured in by two insurance billionaires are pure power grabs to get more money and power for the backers of Proposition 32 and 33.
Proposition 33 is backed by Mercury Insurance Chairman George Joseph, who has spent $16 million, 99.5% of the funds behind the initiative, to charge drivers more for not having auto insurance previously, even if the reason is they didn't drive. Billionaires buying the ballot to help their own profits doesn't get much uglier than Prop 33.
Prop 32 features the heir to the Berkshire Hathway fortune, including GEICO and another insurance company, buying the ballot to gut the power of labor unions in the political process. This of course helps the super-rich and insurance companies have more power. GEICO heir Charlie Munger Jr. poured $22 million into Prop 32, and it isn't to benefit The People, but His People. Hiram Johnson rating: U.G.L.Y!
The BAD: Molly Munger, the other heir to the Berkshire Hathaway fortune, the liberal one, is funding an altruistic ballot measure, Prop 38, which is backed by the PTA and funds education. The problem is it has little public support and is likely not only to fail, but could bring down Prop 30, Governor Brown's budget mending ballot measure, which Munger briefly attacked directly. Rule for billionaires in ballot measures: start with 70% approval rating, not 40%. IF you don't have the public with you at the beginning, you are not likely to win voters over. And if there's a competing ballot measure, it's likely to be a pox on everyone's house.
The GOOD: At least two billionaires have the right idea. Environmentalist and hedgefund manager Tom Steyer is funding Prop 39, an enlightened idea to close the state's loophole on taking out of state corporations, and generate $1 billion for the beleaguered state treasury. Steyer used his money to stop oil companies from gutting the state's greenhouse gas emissions law last election, for which he earned my consumer group's Phillip Burton Public Service Award.
Nicholas Berrgruen's financing pushed Prop 31 on the ballot at the last minute. It's a two year budget cycle initiative reform that has positives and negatives, but Berrgruen sponsored the idea because he believed it would benefit Californians, not line his own pockets. In the end, that's all we can really ask of billionaires that want to play in ballot measure politics: 1) Do it for the state, not to benefit yourself or your class 2) Don't screw anyone else who has a better idea and is more in sync with public opinion.
It takes big money to play in California's ballot measure process today, so billionaires are plenty welcome. But if they are in it for themselves, they aren't likely to fool the voters, who have a remarkable knack for rejecting any ballot initiative with a stink behind it. In the end, the initiative process is still the people's. Voters decide, and their judgment over the billionaires is the final verdict.
Jamie Court is the president of Consumer Watchdog and author of The Progressive's Guide To Raising Hell: How To Win Grassroots Campaigns, Pass Ballot Box Laws and Get The Change We Voted for (Chelsea Green)