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Californians have governed themselves for decades using endless lists of citizen-generated referendums known as propositions or ballot measures. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
Californians have governed themselves for decades using endless lists of citizen-generated referendums known as propositions or ballot measures. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

Expat dispatches: Death penalty, food labelling and other issues on the California ballot Add to ...

As U.S. voters head to the polls, they aren’t just electing politicians. In many states, they are also endorsing or rejecting big pieces of public policy, such as medical marijuana or same-sex marriage. This year California has 11 of these ballot propositions.

This is part of our U.S. Election 2012: Canadians in America series – expats talking about life and politics south of the border. Regan Fletcher, from Oshawa, Ont., works in digital sales and business strategy in San Francisco, Calif.

Ballot propositions were an eye-opener when I moved to California, and I can’t say I’m a big fan. They’re meant to be “democracy in action,” so taxpayers can approve or deny anything that raises their taxes.

But in my opinion, elected officials are elected to govern. They are in it every day and know the real financial situation. If you don’t like how they raise or spend your taxes you vote them out next election.

And like the general election, propositions often come down to fundraising. A couple of the propositions in California have raised more than $100-million to fight them or promote them.

That said, the propositions are here to stay, and in California and in San Francisco I think there are a few important ones:

Prop. 30: This would temporarily raise taxes on those earning over $250,000 per year to directly fund schools. California ranks near the last of states on the amount of funding allocated per student and the school system is headed towards a financial cliff. It may be unfair to target high earners, but the school systems are going to go broke without this tax. My neighbour is a registered Republican and has been going door to door canvassing for it even though the Republican party itself is telling its members to vote no. To me, it’s a perfect example of the Republican party saying no to every single tax regardless of the consequences. Education is a state responsibility and I just don’t understand how the Republican party can insist that it be paid for without raising revenues.

Prop. 32: Probably the proposition getting the most airtime, both paid and in the news. The pitch is that it removes a the ability of a union or a corporation to use its member or employee payroll to donate to political causes. If it actually did that, I think it would pass quite easily. But it was written by Karl Rove and is designed to remove union political power while leaving giant loopholes for corporations. If it passes it will be a huge win for the power of wealthy donors.

Prop. 34: Effectively eliminates the death penalty in California by reducing all death sentences to life in prison with no chance of parole.

Prop. 37: Mandates food labelling for genetically engineered food. I’d really like to support this one based on its idea, but it’s a perfect example of the flaws of ballot propositions. This one is full of loopholes and special exemptions, so in reality it would only affect a small portion of consumed food but would cost a lot to implement and govern. If there were no loopholes, it would put California on par with most European countries in terms of labelling genetically engineered food, but it will fail on the ballot because its opposition has raised $42-million to fight it versus the $7-million raised by its proponents.

Prop. E: In San Francisco, this interesting measure calls for a change in how payroll taxes are calculated. That sounds boring, but here’s why it’s important: Start-ups, which drive a good portion of the economy in San Francisco, are being taxed on payroll even if they’re not generating any revenue, which is true of most start-ups. Prop. E calls for payroll tax to be based on company revenue rather than actual payroll itself. This will encourage more start-ups to set up in San Francisco rather than going to a surrounding suburb, which has become more popular. Twitter almost left the city altogether a year ago, but San Francisco brokered a deal with them to reduce their taxes. Prop. E, more or less, extends the Twitter deal to all start-ups. Working in start-ups myself, I will be watching this one almost as closely as the presidential election.

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