Richard Reeves

The California Winners: Corporate Power

LOS ANGELES -- You can't fool all the people all the time, only about 48 percent. That, rather than the triumph of women billionaires, may be the abiding lesson of California's spring elections this year.

Yes, Meg Whitman, formerly of eBay, showed that you can win a Republican primary for governor by spending about $80 a voter. And Carly Fiorina, formerly of Hewlett-Packard, showed that it could be done for only $20 a voter in the same party's Senate primary.

Interesting, maybe a corporate takeover of government, but hardly new or surprising. More interesting this year was the defeat of three propositions on the ballot of the most democratic (and possibly dysfunctional) state in the union, the home of government by initiative and referendum. And ironically, those results are pointing to new corporate takeovers in the near future.

Proposition 15, a modest proposal to experimentally allow public financing for one not very powerful state office, secretary of state, was easily defeated with more than 57 percent of voters checking the "No" box. One more time, voters rejected using taxpayer dollars to try to level the playing field of electoral politics.

Proposition 16, not modest at all, was a tricky attempt by California's private power industry to make it virtually impossible for municipalities or counties, or the state for that matter, to create new public power companies. (There are more than 50 in the state already, including the Los Angeles Department of Public Works, charging an average of 20 percent less than the private providers of electricity.)

The private companies, led by Pacific Gas and Electric, which put up $46 million for the initiative, called their proposition "Taxpayers Right to Vote Act." That title sounded good -- they always do -- but what it meant was that if a majority of the voters said "Yes," the state constitution would be amended to require a two-thirds vote of public bodies or voters to use public money or credit to start up or expand public power service.

Even the official ballot argument seen last Tuesday by Californians was blunt about the intent, saying: "Proposition 16 does two things: First, it drastically limits your choices on who provides you with electricity. Second, it lets the for-profit utilities in California raise your electricity rates again and again by protecting their monopoly and eliminating competition."

Still, 48 percent of the voters, almost 2 million Californians, voted "Yes" on Prop 16.

Proposition 17 was called "The Continuous Coverage Auto Insurance Discount Act." It would have allowed drivers to keep any discounts they received when they first bought their policies. Sounded good to me -- and to a lot of other people. It was, however, a trick by a single company, Mercury General Corp., which spent $19 million on advertising in a "Yes" campaign, to increase its share of the state's huge insurance business -- and raise premiums at the same time -- by changing state law without going through the hassle of legislative approval and hearings before consumer committees.

Again, 48 percent of voters said "Yes" on that one.

California's government is extremely complicated, dysfunctional some say, and getting more so every day. One of the propositions that passed on Tuesday changed the state's primary election system to mandate that the top two vote-getters in a primary would face each other in the general election even if they were both from the same party. That one is a noble attempt to reduce the power of parties -- and perhaps the polarization of state politics. The idea, endorsed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, is that candidates will no longer have to campaign to the conservative (Republicans) and liberal (Democrats) bases of the two major parties and be forced to take more moderate positions. Maybe. Good luck.

So what really happened here Tuesday, leaving those lucky women aside, is that corporations have figured out a way to avoid the government (or politics) of the state to try to trick voters, using big bucks and weasel words, into voting them more and more power to do pretty much whatever they want to do. They lost this time. But, as the governor used to say in his movies, they'll be back.

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