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Corporate Bucks Behind 'Citizens' Initiatives In Calif.

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Corporate Bucks Behind 'Citizens' Initiatives In Calif.

Corporate Bucks Behind 'Citizens' Initiatives In Calif.

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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We turn now to California, where voters have used ballot initiatives to rewrite the laws on everything from taxes, to medical marijuana, to raising chickens. Increasingly, though, these citizens' initiatives are being sponsored by corporations. As NPR's Ina Jaffe reports, a couple of prime examples are on next month's primary ballot.

INA JAFFE: What better way to appeal to California voters than giving them even more things to vote on?

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Man: Proposition 16 is the taxpayers right to vote act. It requires voter approval before local governments can spend or borrow public funds to go into the electricity business.

JAFFE: Sure. Why wouldn't someone want to have the last word on who gets to sell them electricity. Prop 16 would require a city or county that wants to start a municipal utility or expand an existing one to get two-thirds of voters to give the OK.

The backer of all this extra democracy is Pacific Gas and Electric, California's largest private for-profit electric company.

Ms. ROBIN SWANSON (Spokesman, Yes on 16 campaign): Prop 16 puts the power back in the hands of the people.

JAFFE: Robin Swanson, the spokeswoman for the Yes On 16 Campaign, says Pacific Gas and Electric isn't afraid of competition from public power providers.

Ms. SWANSON: If our opponents can provide cheaper, greener, better electric service, then they shouldn't be afraid to go to the people and sell it to them.

JAFFE: Except those municipal power providers are forbidden by law from spending a dime on electioneering. PG&E, on the other hand, has already put about $44 million into the campaign for Prop. 16. The No side has raised around 60,000.

Jerry Geesman, a spokesman for the No Campaign, says PG&E is breaking new and dangerous ground with Prop. 16.

Mr. JERRY GEESMAN (Spokesman, No On 16 Campaign): This is an effort to lock into the state constitution a perpetual monopoly. That's never been done before.

JAFFE: Prop. 16 isn't the only measure on the June ballot financed by a large corporation. Mercury Insurance is the money behind Proposition 17.

(Soundbite of Mercury Insurance ad)

Unidentified Woman: Responsible drivers who maintain insurance shouldnt be penalized because they change insurance companies. Prop. 17 fixes the law...

JAFFE: So Prop. 17 would fix the law so that drivers keep their loyalty discount, even if they decide to buy insurance from a new provider. Mercury Insurance has poured nearly $16 million into the campaign.

But the Alliance of Insurance Agents and Producers also supports the measure. Mike D'Arelli is the executive director.

Mr. MIKE D'ARELLI (Executive Director, Alliance of Insurance Agents and Producers): We love this initiative because it creates competition between companies. And as independent agents, we work with consumers to shop for the best deal. And we think when there's more competition between insurance companies it's going to lead to lower rates.

JAFFE: But opponents say Prop. 17 is an excuse to raise rates on drivers who've let their insurance lapse.

Jamie Court is the head of Consumer Watch.

Mr. JAMIE COURT (President, Consumer Watchdog): The people who are most likely to be hit are college students, military personnel stationed domestically on a base where they don't need a car, anyone who decides the economy is just too tough and they're just going to put their car in the garage. When they come back in the market, they're going to be facing surcharges up to 70 percent in many cases.

JAFFE: One reason why the initiative process is increasingly dominated by special interests is that it costs at least a million dollars just to gather enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. But money isn't everything, says conservative political consultant Joel Fox.

Mr. JOEL FOX (Joel Fox Consulting): If you have the money, you're almost guaranteed to qualify a measure for the ballot, but you are not guaranteed to pass that measure. Money does not buy victory.

JAFFE: But for corporations, it's worth rolling the dice, says political analyst Sherry Bebitch Jeffe.

Dr. SHERRY BEBITCH JEFFE (Senior Scholar, University of Southern California): You might as well put the money in the initiative process, get exactly what you want on the ballot, as opposed to investing in a legislator who might go off the reservation, and you will not have control over what that policy looks like.

JAFFE: That philosophy is behind a measure headed for the November ballot. It would suspend California's landmark clean air law - major funding provided by oil companies.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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