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Byline: Steven Hayward

ANYONE who follows the world of political punditry will know that the media sages are having a hard time interpreting what voters are really thinking just now.

President Clinton appears headed for a landslide re-election, yet the fact that he is doing so by embracing Republican themes such as welfare reform and ``family values'' suggests that the dominant mood of the voters is right-of-center.

So, the pundits say, watch Congress. If Democrats can retake one or both houses of Congress, perhaps we can call off the conservative revolution.

But, as that famous sage of an earlier political era, Tip O'Neill, used to say, all politics is local.

The congressional results may be as hard to interpret as the presidential election.

For a better guide to the ideological mood of the country, keep a close eye on California's ballot initiatives. The national spotlight is already fixed on Proposition 209, the California Civil Rights Initiative, but several of the other propositions on the ballot that currently lurk in the shadows would have large consequences as well.

The ballot pamphlet for the 15 propositions in California is 110 pages long this year, so it is impossible to summarize adequately the pros and cons of each proposition in this article.

However, a number of the propositions can be neatly grouped by subject matter, making an overview easier.

Propositions 204, 205 and 206 are bond measures, for clean water (204), local jails (205), and veterans' home loans (206). These three bond measures would add a total of $2.1 billion of debt to the state. Like most bond measures, none of these excites any ideological or partisan passions, but for several election cycles over the past few years California voters turned thumbs-down to most bond initiatives.

This was surely a reflection of the state's poor economy and annual state budget crises. Starting with the primary election last March, voters began smiling on bond measures again. Voters' willingness to approve bonded indebtedness is a general indicator of how optimistic they are about the state's economic prospects.

If the voters approve any or all three of these initiatives, it will be a clear sign that voters think the economy and the state budget are back on track.

Propositions 207 and 211 would profoundly change the rules of litigation in California, and are a test of whether voters like lawyers. Proposition 207 would prohibit the Legislature from ever regulating or capping contingency fees that lawyers charge clients, and would supposedly crack down on frivolous lawsuits, though in fact it would probably have the opposite effect.

This initiative - along with Proposition 211 - was sponsored by the trial lawyers to head off the growing support for legal reforms, and as revenge against the business community for trying to pass the ``terrible 200s'' back in March.

Proposition 211 deals with securities fraud, and would essentially declare open season on California's high-tech companies in Silicon Valley. Securities lawyers have been very successful in recent years in generating ``fraud'' settlements from companies whose volatile stock prices jump around.

Congress passed a law last year curtailing the abuses of such lawsuits, but the trial lawyers proposed Prop. 211 to undo the congressional reform.

Securities law is arcane and complicated, but this initiative would decidedly tilt the playing field in favor of plaintiff lawyers, and would place a cloud especially over start-up companies in California, leading to job losses and slower innovation.

The business community and the trial lawyers will probably set a new spending record in the fight over this initiative.

Proposition 208 and 212 are sweeping campaign finance reforms sponsored by competing reform groups who couldn't agree on what reform approach should be taken. Both initiatives would place strict contribution limits and spending limits for state legislative and statewide office elections and would attempt to limit the influence of lobbyists and special interest groups.

Voters are right to be disgusted with the relentless money-chase of modern politics. But the idea of regulating politics in the same way we regulate some aspects of commerce is highly problematic.

The basic problem with campaign finance reform is that restrictions on campaign contributions are like the proverbial toothpaste tube: squeeze it here, and it will swell up somewhere else.

The attempt to limit the influence of money in politics through regulation is futile so long as moneyed interests have so much at stake in what goes on in government. Special interests will always find a way around the regulations to feed the politicians' insatiable demand for money, even if they do it indirectly. Look at the way the labor unions are spending $35 million this year to influence the election, in ways that do not run afoul of strict federal campaign laws.

Prop. 208 and 212 would only enhance the power of well-organized special interest groups to influence elections.

Proposition 209, the California Civil Rights Initiative, will be the most closely watched initiative in the nation on Election Day. It would prohibit racial preferences and quotas in government hiring, contracting and college admissions. Prop. 209 simply restates the clear language of colorblind nondiscrimination from the 1964 Civil Rights Act - language that has been turned on its head through a series of court decisions and quiet administrative subterfuge over the years.

Preferential treatments and quotas have always proceeded in an underhanded way, because the ideal runs counter to the basic American principle of equal individual opportunity.

Proposition 209 will be the first time that racial preferences will be put to a popular vote, and like Prop. 13 in 1978, its passage may set off a nationwide movement to reform the abuses of affirmative action.

Propositions 214 and 216 would establish sweeping new regulations of health care in California. Health care initiatives have become a perennial in California elections; a ``pay or play'' initiative appeared in 1992, and an even more radical ``single-payer'' initiative appeared in 1994.

The two propositions appearing this year are seemingly less ambitious, but still quite radical in their reach. Both would establish large new bureaucracies costing taxpayers hundreds of millions to administer, and would probably increase instead of lower the cost of health care.

It is true that HMOs and managed care are unpopular in the public mind, but bureaucratic Clinton-style health care reform is equally unpopular.

Propositions 210 and 217 go together as an ideological pair. Prop. 210 would raise California's minimum wage above the federally mandated minimum wage, and Prop. 217 would raise income tax rates for high income individuals.

Economists are nearly unanimous that minimum wage increases cost jobs, especially for entry-level and minority workers, and a higher minimum wage will complicate the effort to implement welfare reform.

But a higher minimum wage is politically popular in this age of stagnant wages. Likewise, voters typically reject higher income taxes for high-income individuals, because most voters hope that they, too, will be high-income individuals someday.

If Props. 210 and 217 are approved, it will be a sign that class warfare themes may have some traction with voters.

Eight of the 12 nonbond initiatives on the ballot can be reckoned as ``liberal'' initiatives, while only three (Props. 209, 213 and 218) are conservative. Prop. 213 would limit lawsuits by drunk drivers, uninsured motorists and felons, while Prop. 218 would require voter approval for local tax increases.

Proposition 215, allowing the medical use of marijuana, cuts across ideological lines, with many conservative Republicans in support.

If, on the day after the election, five or more of the liberal initiatives have passed, it will be a sign that swing voters in the middle are in fact swinging back in a liberal direction.

MEMO: Steven Hayward is vice president for research at the Pacific Research Institute, a San Francisco-based think tank. His e-mail address is:



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Title Annotation:VIEWPOINT
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 27, 1996

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