Five California Ballot Initiatives You Need to Know About​

by Anna Radoff

California has one of the most active ballot initiative processes in the country. Between 1911 and 2014, voters have approved 123 of 364 initiatives. California is one of ten states that allows all forms of initiatives and referendums. This means that citizens or the legislature can initiate constitutional amendments and statues. An initiative only requires a simple majority to go into effect. The exception is parcel tax initiatives which require a super majority of two thirds to pass.

Nevertheless, very few voters ever spend the time to read every initiative before voting on it.  An educated electorate is critical when voting. In order for this ballot initiative process to work, citizens need to be aware of what the ballot initiatives mean. Below are a few of the more prominent initiatives from this cycle.

1. Proposition 55: Extend Tax on High Income
This amendment to the California Constitution seeks to continue the current taxes levied on high-income earners. This bracket includes individuals who make over $250,000 and couples earning over $500,000 per year. The tax extension earmarks the funds to be spent on education and healthcare by the state.

In 2012, California voters approved Proposition 30, which raised taxes from 1% to 3% on individuals earning more than $250,000. This year, Proposition 30 taxes will raise close to $7 billion dollars for K-12 schools and limited additional resources for community colleges.

In addition to raising taxes on high-income earners, Proposition 30 raised the state sales tax a quarter cent. In contrast, this year’s Proposition 55 does not seek to extend the sales tax increase and it is set to expire at the end of 2016. The image below shows the increases passed by Proposition 30 and the total taxes per bracket.

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Arguments against Proposition 55 are that the Proposition 30 taxes were intended to be temporary and should be respected as such. Furthermore, allowing the state more control over the budget erodes local control of education policy.

Estimates from those in favor of Proposition 55 project that state revenue will increase anywhere from $4 billion to $9 billion from 2019 to 2030. Education makes up over half of the state’s $122 billion budget. The income tax provides over two thirds of the funds for this budget.

What a Yes vote means: Continue the current tax on high incomes ($250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for couples) through the year 2030.

What a No vote means: Allow the current tax on high incomes to end in 2018 and return to a 9.3% tax rate on anyone making over $52,000 a year.

2. Proposition 61: Prescription Drug Costs
Proposition 61 seeks to regulate how much state agencies spend on prescription drugs. Federal law requires that the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) receives a 24% discount on prescription drugs and has a price ceiling. The VA is able to negotiate additional discounts, but the amount is not publicly disclosed.

Proposition 61 would apply to low-income patients covered by Medi-Cal, inmates in state prison, state employees and retirees, and employees and teachers at UC and CSU campuses. This is estimated to be anywhere from 4.5 to 7 million Californians. Opponents of Prop 61 point out that Medi-Cal managed care, private insurance, and public school district employees and retirees are not covered.

Proponents of Proposition 61 emphasize the historically high prices of prescription drugs without justification. The Epipen price controversy sparked conversations over the skyrocketing price of drugs and the need to limit the power of the pharmaceutical industry. Proponents of Prop 61 also claim that the passage of the initiative would save taxpayers and consumers billions of dollars by leveraging the state of California’s bulk-purchasing power to secure lower drug prices.

Opponents are skeptical of how much money Proposition 61 would truly save. Confidentiality agreements make it impossible to know what the VA’s actual purchase price for drugs is. The fiscal impact is unclear because drug pricing varies widely. There is also the fear that prescription drug companies will raise the price for veterans in retaliation and eliminate any price discounts entirely. There is no current research one way or the other on how prescription drug companies would respond.

To date Proposition 61 is one of the most expensive campaigns in California history. The “No on Prop 61” campaign is outspending Yes by $86 million to $9 million. The large contributors against Proposition 61 come from Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer in New Jersey and New York. AIDS Healthcare Foundation in Los Angeles is the largest donor in favor of Proposition 61.

What a Yes vote means: Regulation of state agencies to allow them to pay the same prices as the US Department of Veterans Affairs Pays for prescription drugs.

What a No vote means: No regulation of state agencies to allow them to pay the same prices as the US Department of Veterans Affairs Pays for prescription drugs.

3. Proposition 63: Gun and Ammunition Sales
Proposition 63 requires that individuals who wish to purchase ammunition must first obtain a four-year, $50 permit from the California Department of Justice. Dealers would then be required to check this permit before selling ammunition. A background check, similar to the process for buying a gun, would also be conducted before anyone is allowed to purchase the permit for ammunition.

A controversial feature of Proposition 63 is that it prohibits the ownership of large-capacity magazines. This includes guns that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition. California banned the sale of large-capacity magazines in 2000, but Proposition 61 would make it illegal to purchase such guns out of state and those who currently own them would have to turn them over to local law enforcement.

Proponents of Proposition 63 cite the increase in gun violence in recent years and suggest that limits on access to gun ammunition could prevent future violence. The process for vetting ammunition permits follows the same constitutional process as purchasing a gun and therefore does not make it harder on those legally seeking a firearm. Estimates predict low state and local cost of implementation.

Arguments against Proposition 63 focus on the burden it places on citizens seeking firearms. In addition, it may create a burden for the court system as the law goes into enforcement. Others claim that it will not be effective in stopping criminals from obtaining ammunition or thwart any terrorist attack.

What a Yes vote means: Prohibits the possession of large-capacity ammunition magazines and requires individuals to pass a background check in order to purchase ammunition.

What a No vote means: Maintain current law and does not require a background check before purchasing ammunition.

4. Proposition 62: Repeal the Death Penalty
There are two propositions on the California ballot this year: Proposition 62 which seeks to repeal the death penalty and Proposition 66 which aims at reforming it. Since there are two death penalty related propositions, if both Proposition 66 and Proposition 62 pass then the one with the most “yes” votes will supersede the other.

Proposition 62 would repeal the state death penalty and replace the maximum punishment for murder with life in prison without the possibility of parole. It would retroactively apply to all those already sentenced to death. In addition, Proposition 62 would require all prisoners sentenced to life in prison without parole to work and pay 60% restitution to victim’s families. A similar proposal in 2012 to abolish the death penalty was defeated.

Proponents of Proposition 62 claim that there are legal and ethical challenges with lethal injections, California has not executed a prisoner since 2006. Of the 748 prisoners who are on death row, almost all are appealing their sentences. Supporters claim that Proposition 62 is the one way to eliminate miscarriages of justice and wrongful convictions that plague the court system.

Furthermore, proponents of Prop 62 argue that the death penalty is disproportionally given to poor citizens of color, who often lack quality legal representation in court. The fiscal impact of Proposition 62 suggests that the court savings from the appeal process would be about $150 million annually within a few years.

Opponents of Proposition 62 claim that simply working for life will not bring justice to the victim’s families and the strongest possibly punishment for the most serious murderers is necessary. Rather than repealing the death penalty, they claim, we should focus on reforming it through Proposition 66.

What a Yes vote means: Repeal the death penalty and make life without parole the maximum punishment for murder.

What a No vote means: Keep the death penalty as currently stated by California law.

5. Proposition 66 Death Penalty Court Procedures
Proposition 66 is designed to address growing concerns that the legal proceedings surrounding death sentences are expensive and time consuming. Proposition 66 attempts to shorten the time that legal challenges to death sentences take to a maximum of five years.

Proponents of Proposition 66 recognize that the appeals process is broken and needs to be mended. Proposition 66 would require all prisoners on death row to work and pay 70% of their wages in restitution to victim’s families.

The goal of shortening the appeal of sentences to five years may not have the intended impact. Criminal justice lawyers fear that limiting appeals leaves the vulnerable populations at risk for wrongful convictions. Moreover, this could cost taxpayers millions of dollars in legal fees.

What a Yes vote means: Changing the procedures governing state court appeals and petitions that challenge death penalty convictions and sentences.

What a No vote means: Maintain current procedures for governing death penalty appeals and petitions.

October 24th is the voter registration deadline. Check to see if you are registered to vote!


 Anna Radoff is Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy and an Editor at PolicyMatters Journal