A guide for the perplexed California voter: State propositions and county measures


Because of our holy books, Jews are used to navigating long, complicated legalistic texts. But nothing could have prepared us for the 224-page voter guide that arrived in the mail this election cycle, asking Californians to weigh sometimes sweeping and often obscure changes to its legal code.

Below are bite-sized explanations of each ballot initiative Los Angeles County voters will face, and some reasons why you might support or oppose each.

Proposition 51: School bonds

Prop. 51 is a borrow-and-build school bond that has become standard practice in California politics. It continues a longstanding state tradition of borrowing money to build and renovate K-12 schools and community colleges (a tradition that Gov. Jerry Brown has opposed, among other reasons, because it multiplies the state’s debt obligations). Between 1996 and 2002, voters approved $40 billion in this type of bond funding. That leaves California voters who disapprove of the current system in something of a bind: Even if they don’t approve of the current funding structure, it’s one schools have come to rely on to keep their buildings up to date. The measure under consideration would allocate $7 billion for K-12 schools and another $2 billion for community colleges. 

Proposition 52: Medi-Cal hospital fees

What? You’re not an expert in the Medi-Cal funding structure? Well, that’s too bad, because if you’re a California voter, you’re going to have to make some important decisions anyway. Basically, Prop. 52 locks in an existing fee structure where hospitals pay part of the cost of Medi-Cal programs. The funny thing is that a long list of hospitals and hospital administrators, including many in Los Angeles, have signed on to support a measure that would continue a fee that they pay. The hospitals say that’s because it’s simply a funding mechanism that works. Critics say it’s because it locks in a revenue stream that overpaid administrators raid to pay for luxury autos and tropical vacations. 

Proposition 53: Revenue bonds

The California High-Speed Rail project has drawn its share of criticism. Under Prop. 53, it may never have happened in the first place. The measure would require legislators to go to voters before they borrow more than $2 billion in bonds. On the one hand, that would give voters more power to check the ambitions of construction-crazed legislators. On the other hand, it would give more power to the initiative process and potentially lengthen future ballots. And do you really have time for more ballot initiatives?

Proposition 54: Legislation and proceedings

If you’re not a fan of transparency in government, you should probably vote no on this one. Prop. 54 requires bills to go online for 72 hours before they’re passed. It also forces the legislature to record all its proceedings. 

Proposition 55: Tax extension to fund education and health care

Remember Bernie Sanders yelling about taxing the rich to pay for social programs? Well, that’s Prop. 55 in a nutshell. It extends a tax increase on earners above $250,000 to pay for health care and education. Opponents say it’s a ploy by special interests to duplicitously extend a temporary tax. Proponents don’t have to say much to pass a Robin Hood measure in progressive California. The measure has 57 percent support, according to a September poll.

Proposition 56: Cigarette tax

People who impose costs on a system should pay to cover them. That’s the message of Prop. 56, which would tax cigarettes at $2 a pack to pay for health care programs, tobacco-related disease research and prevention, and physician training. Smokers are probably reading something different from Prop. 56, namely that the state wants to increase the average cost of a pack by more than a third. 

Proposition 57: Sentencing

Prop. 57 translates outrage about over-incarceration into policy. It would allow nonviolent offenders to appeal for parole after serving their term for their so-called primary offense. More important to many supporters, it strips prosecutors of the power to send juvenile defendants to adult court without getting approval from a judge. Many rabbis, non-Jewish clergy and social justice activists see it as a progressive measure to scale back the prison industrial complex. Meanwhile, many prosecutors, law enforcement officer associations and district attorneys see it as a misguided measure that would put dangerous felons into California communities. 

Proposition 58: English proficiency and multilingual education

Prop. 58 asks voters to reverse a 1998 ballot measure requiring public schools to teach English learners only in English. So if it passes, for instance, a student from Mexico could take some classes in Spanish. Depending on whom you ask, that would mean either more options for educators or schools where foreign students fail to learn English altogether.  

Proposition 59: Corporations, political spending and federal constitutional protections

Prop. 59 doesn’t do anything per se because it’s an advisory vote. Instead, it would recommend that California’s legislators propose an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to overturn the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which deregulated campaign spending.

Proposition 60: Adult Films, condoms and health requirements

Prop. 60 would do for California what Measure B did in Los Angeles County in 2012: Require that all actors in adult films use condoms during the filming of sexual intercourse, along with a number of other safety standards. The proposition’s sole financial backer is the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, an L.A.-based nonprofit that’s poured millions into the “Yes” campaign. Meanwhile, it has the distinction of being the only ballot proposition to be opposed by both the California Democratic Party and the California Republican Party on the grounds that it would proliferate lawsuits against porn producers. 

Proposition 61: State prescription drug purchases, pricing standards

Drug pricing feels like the kind of complicated morass where politicians and experts should get together and work it out. Nonetheless, Prop. 61 asks Californians to weigh in on how much the state pays for prescription pills. It turns out the state pays for the prescriptions of groups ranging from prisoners to University of California students, in addition to low-income residents covered by Medi-Cal and some others. The price tag for those drugs approaches $4 billion each year. Basically, Prop. 61 would cap the price the state pays at the same price the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs pays. State agencies would legally not be allowed to pay more than that.

Proposition 62 and Proposition 66: Death penalty

The Jewish faith tends to be squeamish about executions: In nearly 70 years of statehood, Israel has executed one person, and that person was no less a villain than Adolf Eichmann. California has been somewhat more bloodthirsty, but that could change with a ballot measure to abolish the practice entirely. Prop. 62 and Prop. 66 are competing measures. The first ends the death penalty and the second speeds up the execution process. If both measures pass, the one with more votes would go into effect. To abolish the death penalty, vote “yes” on Prop. 62 and “no” on Prop. 66; flip those to uphold it.

Proposition 63: Firearms and ammunition sales

A gun control initiative in California, one of the least gun-friendly states in the nation, Prop. 63 is likely a shoo-in, polling at a nearly 40-point spread in favor according to a USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times survey. It adds to recently and soon-to-be enacted state gun control measures by requiring both buyers and sellers of ammunition to obtain a permit. It also stiffens court procedures to seize guns from offenders, ups the penalties for stealing a firearm and bans outright so-called “large-capacity magazines” that hold more than 10 rounds.

Proposition 64: Marijuana legalization

When the Journal covered Prop. 64 proposing recreational marijuana legalization earlier this year, the most common reader response was that the coverage ignored Genesis 1:29: “God said, ‘See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth.’ ” These readers took the verse as a heavenly mandate that smoking pot was A-OK. Still, the practice is illegal under state law, putting a damper on would-be tokers. Prop. 64 would change that. It’s California’s second run at legalizing pot since 2010, when Proposition 19 failed with 46.5 percent of the vote. The most recent polling, by the Public Policy Institute of California, has Prop. 64 fairing better than its predecessor, with the support of 55 percent of likely voters.

Proposition 65 and Proposition 67: Plastic bag ban

These two propositions ask California voters to act as the conscience of legislators who, in 2014, passed a ban on free plastic bags at certain stores but allowed those stores to sell paper bags for at least 10 cents apiece, keeping the proceeds themselves. The two measures have a confusing interaction effect (explained in a handy table in the official voter information guide). Basically, Prop. 67 is a referendum on the 2014 law. If it passes, the ban stands; if it fails, the ban is moot. Prop. 65 assumes the law stands and redirects revenue from paper bag sales to environmental programs. If both laws pass, Prop. 65 goes into effect only if it gets more votes than Prop. 67. Otherwise, the plastic bag ban gets enacted as passed by Sacramento and stores can keep the revenue from bag sales.

Measure M: Transportation tax

Measure M dangles in front of L.A. voters the prospect of a city with truly modern public transportation, with a network of trains connecting LAX to West Hollywood and Azusa to Venice. That would all be fine and dandy, except for two reservations some voters harbor: the funding method and the organization tasked with turning that dream into a reality. Measure M institutes what opponents call a “forever tax” — a half-cent sales tax that, besides having no expiration date, tends to tax lower-income individuals at a higher proportion of their incomes. On top of that, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) has eroded trust with some L.A. County voters by failing to deliver on past projects, such as the subway under Wilshire Boulevard that was fed to Angelenos as the “Subway to the Sea.” After years of court battles and cost overruns, that subway is set to stop some 5 miles short of the beach. Measure M is Metro asking voters for another chance.

Measure A: Parks and beaches

Measure A is Measure M’s ugly stepsister on the ballot, a funding measure aimed at L.A.’s parks and beaches that gets far less attention in the media than the multibillion-dollar transportation tax. After an 18-month investigation, a county commission this year estimated it would cost $21.5 billion to rehabilitate the 3,000 parks in the county, even as voter-approved funding streams for park maintenance are set to expire. Measure A replaces the expiring funds by levying a 1.5-cent tax for each square foot of building space in the county, including homes, apartments, commercial real estate and office space. The proceeds, voters are told, go to efforts ranging from preventing gang violence by adding amenities to community parks to beefing up the urban canopy by planting trees.