2018 midterms

California’s Big Election Money Is Being Spent on Narrow Ballot Initiatives, Not Candidates

Screenshot from No on 6 ad. Photo: YouTube

California has a lot at stake in the midterm elections. There are contests for governor, U.S. senator, and eight other statewide offices. No less than 13 congressional races are at least somewhat competitive. The entire State Assembly and half the State Senate are up for reelection, along with many municipal offices.

Yet if space aliens landed in the Golden State about now and adjudged California’s civic culture via television advertising, they might get the impression that the most important questions facing voters on Tuesday involve a few very narrow ballot initiatives, rather than any competition for executive or legislative office. Here’s one of many, many ads opposing Proposition 8, an esoteric measure restricting the profits of companies offering dialysis services to people with kidney problems:

As CALmatters explains, this proposition fight is basically a slugfest between a union that is trying to organize dialysis workers and two companies that employ them.

The Prop. 8 campaign has raised $20.3 million, most of it from SEIU United Healthcare Workers. The union argues that dialysis clinic companies are netting huge profits while allowing shoddy health and safety conditions at some clinics. Limiting the companies’ profits to 15 percent, as Prop. 8 calls for, would encourage the clinics to put more money into improving patient care, the union argues….

The businesses are fighting back, pouring $111 million into the campaign against Prop. 8—most of it from two dialysis companies, DaVita and Fresenius.

One-hundred-and-eleven million dollars is a lot of money, even in California, and so the two companies mostly paying for “No on Prop 8” are able to flood the airwaves with blunt and bloody claims that the initiative — modeled on the Affordable Care Act’s “medical loss ratio” provision limiting health-insurance industry profits — is just an overtly evil effort to kill people or funnel them into already-crowded emergency rooms.

Rivaling the “No on 8” campaign as a big money proposition is the effort by realtors and landlords to defeat Proposition 10, which would repeal a state law that sharply restricts the power of local governments to impose rent control. They’ve spent an estimated $77.5 million trying to convince Californians that the measure would actually hurt renters by forcing properties off the market, and despite pushback from liberal groups, they’ve done an effective job; a recent PPIC survey shows Prop 10 losing by a 25/60 margin. The realtors are actually splitting their money this year, spending another $13 million in support of Prop 5, which would expand a property-tax freeze for people over 55 selling their homes. There’s no polling on Prop 5, but it’s very likely to pass.

The prize for the narrowest and most special-interest-tailored California ballot initiative this year has to go to Prop 11. Again CALmatters explains:

Colorado-based company American Medical Response put Proposition 11 on the ballot and contributed most of the $29.9 million raised to support it. The measure would allow private ambulance companies to require workers to remain on-call during breaks, so they can respond to an emergency even if it comes while they’re eating lunch. That’s already the common practice, but this measure comes in response to a court ruling that security guards cannot be required to stay on-call while they’re on breaks. Ambulance companies don’t want to be held to the same standard.

As with the “No on 8” campaign, “Yes on 11” casts an industry’s expenses and profits as a simple matter of life and death:

Public employee unions oppose Prop 11, but haven’t raised any real money to oppose it, so this is a slam dunk. The $29.9 million that California company put into it is more than Gavin Newsom, the front-running candidate for governor, has spent on his campaign in 2018.

There is one 2018 ballot initiative that has massive implications not just for one industry but for the state as a whole: Proposition 6, a Republican-sponsored effort to repeal a gas-tax increase imposed by the Democratic-controlled legislature last year. It would eliminate about $5 billion per year in road and bridge repair money and make it harder to increase fuel taxes in the future. With the state having all but abandoned such repairs in recent years given chronic budget shortfalls, there’s a frenzy of construction going on across the state that Prop 6 would bring to a quick halt. Republicans got the initiative on the ballot hoping it would goose voter turnout in GOP-leaning suburban and rural areas, but they haven’t spent much money promoting it. Opponents, including Governor Jerry Brown, companies and unions involved in road construction, and local governments, have spent nearly $50 million fighting Prop 6. In tune with this year’s Zeitgeist, the “No on 6” campaign makes it sound like a measure that would endanger lives rather than simply killing many billions of dollars in public revenues, as illustrated by this ad narrated by a firefighter:

The recent PPIC poll shows Prop 6 trailing by a 48/41 margin, though support for the gas-tax repeal is strongest in the Orange County and San Diego areas where most of the state’s hottest congressional races are taking place.

On November 6 and in the days following it, when mail ballots postmarked by Election Day drift in, it will be those California congressional races that get the most attention. But in the background, some heavy hitters will be expressing quiet satisfaction at what their large investments in ballot-driven public policy have bought them.

California’s Big Election Money Spent on Ballot Measures