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October 14, 2004

Has the State Got a Proposition for You!

http://www.jewishjournal.com/community_briefs/article/has_the_state_got_a_proposition_for_you_20041015

The wind grows colder, the days shorter and a 165-page, gray book of propositions arrives in everybody's mailbox. Welcome to the election season -- for Californians.

In national politics, California has been mostly ignored by both presidential candidates as a foregone conclusion. There is hardly a single close congressional race in the state. Between war in Iraq, violence in Israel and the swing states to the East, California is not on the agenda in Washington.

But to California voters, the one-inch-thick volume of propositions is a huge chance to reshape state government. Jewish leaders and activists are staking out their positions on a few of the 16 ballot initiatives.

Prop. 71, in particular, enjoys more open Jewish support than any other measure on the ballot this fall. It would authorize the state to sell $3 billion of bonds to finance research on embryonic stem cells, which could possibly help provide cures for such chronic diseases as diabetes, Alzheimer's and cancer.

Jewish support for Prop. 71 includes Rabbi Janet Marder, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; Rabbi Elliot N. Dorff, professor of philosophy at the University of Judaism; Rabbi David Ellenson, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion president; Hadassah; the Women's Zionist Organization of America; and others.

"Jewish tradition strongly encourages scientific research, including the use of stem cells, to find new cures for diseases," wrote the Progressive Jewish Alliance, which also supports Prop. 71, in its proposition policy statement. "If such cures were found, millions of lives could be saved, and health-care costs could be cut by billions of dollars."

After pressure from religious conservatives several years ago, President Bush imposed strict limits on embryonic stem-cell research that uses federal dollars, requiring all work to be done on only a handful of existing cell lines and with only a trickle of funds. That prompted Californians to collect over a million signatures to put Prop. 71 on the ballot.

But interest must be paid on bonds, and the $3 billion Prop. 71 bonds could actually end up costing about $6 billion.

"I am a very strong supporter of stem-cell research, but I don't think that issuing a $3 billion general obligation bond is a fiscally responsible measure at this point in time," said Assemblyman Keith Richman (R-Granada Hills).

Supporters say that making California the world's leader in stem-cell research would create jobs and tax revenue.

In other financial matters, Proposition 1A would greatly limit state power over local property taxes and force Sacramento to reimburse local governments anytime it imposes a new rule or regulation.

"If we funded state government properly, we wouldn't have to guarantee this funding, but when budgets are in bad shape [the state] steals from local government," said Howard Welinsky, former head of the Jewish Community Relations Committee and a longtime Democratic activist.

"Imagine yourself as the mayor of a city," Welinsky said. "You don't know on July 1 what your revenue is until the state finishes its budget deliberations -- and sometimes they wait until August to figure this out. So how are you going to manage your resources?"

Welinsky called the state budget "woefully underfunded" due to low taxes (held over from the boom years of the 1990s) that Republicans have refused to raise.

Though Republicans say that Democrats' runaway spending is actually to blame for the state's budget problems, both parties are supporting Prop. 1A's ban on the state's grab of local funds. Some opposition to Prop. 1A has questioned whether local government spends money more responsibly than the state.

Several of the propositions on the ballot are directly related to California's faltering health-care system. Prop. 63 would impose a 1 percent surcharge on state income taxes for those earning more than $1 million a year. That money would go directly to county mental health services.

Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), former head of the Jewish Community Relations Committee in Sacramento, is one of Prop. 63's biggest supporters. He's called it an opportunity to fix the broken promise California made to its counties in the 1960s, when the state emptied its mental health hospitals.

But why tax only the very wealthy?

"In a perfect word, or even a better world, this is not the way to fund government," Steinberg told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Opponents say depending on such a narrow tax base to fund partly effective programs is too risky. But supporters point to the hundreds of thousands of Californians who are either homeless or in prison today, because they could not get the mental health services they needed.

Another health-care measure, Prop. 67 would add a 3 percent surcharge on telephone use -- both land line and cellular -- mainly to reimburse California hospitals for the care they provide to poor patients.

About 70 hospitals have closed in California over the past decade, including six in Los Angeles County, partly due to uninsured patients needing expensive emergency care.

"If a nearby emergency room closes, the extra time it takes for an ambulance to travel to a more remote facility could literally mean the difference between life and death," the Progressive Jewish Alliance wrote.

Richman opposes Prop. 67, calling it a Band-Aid solution. "Half the hospitals in the state of California are losing money because of uncompensated care," he said. "I think it's critical that we address the fundamental issue of the uninsured."

Richman, for his part, is most passionate about supporting Prop. 62, the "modified blanket" primary. It would change California's electoral system so that only the top two vote-getters from a district in any election -- House of Representatives, Assembly, State Senate, etc. -- could run in the general election.

After a primary election, each party is currently guaranteed a spot for its own top vote-getter in the general election. Prop. 62 would change that by putting the emphasis on the top two candidates, regardless of party. That means a Democrat could run against another Democrat in the general election or a Republican against a Republican.

"It will result in representatives in both Sacramento and Washington who are more moderate and will work to solve problems with common sense solutions," Richman told The Journal, adding that the power of the parties today pushes candidates to the ideological extremes.

However, opponents of Prop. 62 claim that it will simply allow independently wealthy candidates to buy political power. Under the current system, challenging an incumbent for either federal or state office is difficult, even with a slew of money, because there are so many other candidates that split the vote.

Under Prop. 62, though, a wealthy challenger who manages to place second in the primary would have no other competition to worry about except the incumbent and could bring all his money to bear in the run-up to the general election. Groups such as Common Cause oppose it, along with both major parties.

Other propositions on the ballot include Prop. 66, which would limit the "three strikes" law to violent crimes; Prop. 64, which would restrict lawyers' abilities to sue corporations; and Props, 68 and 70, the Native American gambling initiatives.

"It's always hard to say what's a Jewish issue," Welinsky said.

This November, California Jews can decide for themselves.

Proposition 71 will be among the issues discussed at "A Jewish Perspective on Stem Cell Research," with leading rabbis and doctors, Oct. 19 at Temple Beth Am. Free. For more information, call (310) 652-7353.

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