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California's hot initiatives.

As California Democrats see it, there is more at stake in the upcoming election than the 270 electoral votes Walter Mondale needs to win the Presidency. The party's future in the state is on the line, Ironically, six propositions on the ballot, which are generating more heat than the Presidential contest and which Democrats fear will weaken their party if they pass, could save Walter Mondale's skin.

The Mondale-Ferraro campaign is sputtering damply in California. The party faithful, who were so full of energy after the national convention in San Francisco in July, are suffering burnout. October's hope has warmed but not rekindled party confidence. Contributing to the anxiety is the home-state advantage Ronald Reagan enjoys, coupled with the tepid support for Mondale among state Democrats, who favored Hart in the primary.

The most controversial of the initiatives, Proposition 41, could make the Democrats angry enough to come out and vote against it--and for Mondale. Certainly it will be a test of just how conservative the California electorate has become after four years of Reagan. Appealingly described as "welfare reform" by its backers, Proposition 41 would authorize severe cuts in public assistance, to fall most heavily on women and children, the elderly and the disabled Lieut. Gov. Leo McCarthy, a Democrat, calls it "the cruelest and most radical attack on the needy" he has come across in his political experience. and Mary Jane Merrill, president of the state's League of Women Voters, says it is "a blatant attack on the physical well-being of California's low-income women and children."

According to a study by legislative analyst William G. Hamm, the proposed cuts would reduce payments under Aid to Families with Dependent Children (affecting 1 million children) by 60 percent, and state assistance to the elderly, blind and disabled by 36 percent. For example, Hamm hypothesizes that monthly payments of $506 to a mother with two children might be cut back to as little as $223. Total savings to the taxpayers could come to more than $3 billion annually, but it would be accomplished by shifting much of the burden of funding these programs from the Federal and state governments to county authorities, put on tight-budgets as a result of Proposition 13.

The initiative states that California's total welfare budget should exceed the average of those in the other forty-nine states by not more than 10 percent, an acknowledgment of the state's higher cost of living. Proponents charge that the average payments to welfare recipients in California are twice that of other states.

Many observers here compare the potential impact of Proposition 41 to that of Proposition 13, which touched off a wave of tax-cutting referendums across the land in 1978.

"Proposition 41 would be devastating," says Lindy Graham, administrative aide to U.S. Representative Howard Berman. "There is enough sentiment against welfare across the country to make such a precedent trigger a wave of antiwelfare lawmaking. It is a frightening possibility."

The initiative was drafted by Ross Johnson, a Republican State Assemblyman, after he had failed to get welfare reductions past the Democratic majority in the legislature. "California's welfare system is an expensive and unfair failure," Johnson says. "Unfair to the truly needy, unfair to the taxpayer."

To the Democrats, Proposition 41 represents a threat to the entire system of caring for the disadvantaged, which they prevented even Ronald Reagan from cutting when he was Governor. It has united them more than any other issue this year, and they are mobilizing against it. Many party fliers and mailers carry an admonition to vote no.

Assemblywoman Maxine Waters, who led the Rev. Jesse Jackson's primary drive in California, says that the issue is galvanizing the poor. "Once people understand what it would do, they are not just alerted, they are inspired," she says. "They want to vote and they want to get others to vote. It isn't the distant Presidency that matters. Suddenly the minorities, the young mothers, the elderly, the blind and disabled discover they have a personal stake in this election. It has turned the whole of politics around for them."

State officials acknowledge that although California has 11 percent of the nation's population, its A.F.D.C. budget comes to 21 percent of the national total. Matching Federal and state Social Security payments that augment medical insurance reimbursements for those particularly needy among the elderly and disabled are 22 percent of the national expenditure. These high levels reflect a tradition of compassion for the needy that goes back to the New Deal. But California's higher A.F.D.C. payments can also be attributed to a cost-of-living supplement and to the state's rapid growth in population. California also has a large proportion of Asian refugees on public assistance.

Proposition 41 is not the only issue sending off sparks in this election year. California's tradition of nonpartisanship in politics has been superseded by the bitterest partisan antipathy the state has experienced in more than a generation. Although voters are not as caught up in the warring spirit as officeholders and party officials are, Democrats and Republicans are having at each other.

The Democratic base is twofold: the legislature, both houses of which the party dominates and where friction with Republican Governor George Deukmejian and the Republican minority is a fact of political life; and the electorate, a significant majority of which is Democratic. A vigorous G.O.P. voter registration drive has shaved the Democratic bulge fractionally but has not shifted the balance. In September, 52.6 percent of California voters identified themselves as Democrats and 35.9 percent said they were Republicans. Voters, however, are quite at ease about crossing party lines, so the Democratic margin gives Mondale no reason for optimism. The state has not favored a Democrat for President since it went for Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Previous to that, Republicans had won every election since 1948, when Harry Truman took the state.

The Republicans hold the Governor's office, which Deukmejian narrowly won two years ago over Democratic Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley. Deukmejian emphasizes frugality, recently vetoing more than 300 Democrat-favored bills, citing economy as his reason. A second G.O.P. strong point is money. Republicans in California have perfected the art of raising funds from rank-and-file supporters through direct mail campaigns. Their coded lists of donors, large and small, can be relied on to gush forth millions of dollars when tapped.

While the Presidential race grinds along, the television and radio advertisements, the cajoling of endorsers, the clamor of argument, the hype and excitement, center to a marked degree on the ballot measures that encapsulate the partisan struggle.

Of the other initiatives on the California ballot, two are of minor interest: one proposes a state lottery and the other, an end to bilingual ballots. (Another would have required a California petition for a balanced Federal budget but was eliminated as unconstitutional by the state's Supreme Court.) A third is sponsored by that jowly curmudgeon Howard Jarvis, who is seeking to revive his popularity by battening the Proposition 13 hatches tighter. He raised $2 million to put the measure on the ballot and promises to spend $3 million before Election Day to get it passed. Jarvis was irritated by court rulings that enabled local governments to tap other sources of revenue after Proposition 13 reduced property taxes. His Proposition 36 would restrict the collection of fees-for-service, on which California local governments widely rely to keep running. It would also forbid using revenues from property taxes for public pension funds. The impact Proposition 36 could have on city and county operations has alarmed business people, and major organizations, including the California Taxpayers Association, strongly oppose it. They fear that the quality of life in the state will deteriorate drastically if sources of revenue are cut further. Jarvis's initial expectation was that the new tax cut would capture headlines, but the negative reaction to it and the partisan controversy touched off by other initiatives have put it in the shade.

The two final Republican-sponsored initiatives are designed to hit Democrats where it would hurt them most. One measure, drawn up at Governor Deukmejian's behest, would erase the Democratic-dominated legislature's control over political districting in California by creating a commission of retired appellate court judges to take up the task. Judges, being officially nonpartisan in California elections, are thought likely to change the gerrymandered districting, which has advantaged the Democrats. The other initiative would impose limits on campaign fund-raising in a way that would handicap Democrats more than Republicans. It would limit individual donations to $1,000. Ostensibly intended to strike a blow against the power of big money, the measure would also benefit the Republicans: they get the bulk of their contributions from small-scale donors, while the Democrats rely on a few big contributors in business and in the entertainment world.

Ordinarily such measures would arouse little interest among voters. But both parties see them as tests of strength. Having concocted the initiatives, Republicans feel they are in command, but if the Democrats can provoke rank-and-file anger, they can make a fight of it. If enough now-apathetic Democrats get stirred up to vote on these ballot measures, especially Proposition 41, they might shift the Presidential tide in America's most populous state.
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Author:Leary, Mary Ellen
Publication:The Nation
Date:Oct 27, 1984
Words:1545
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