March 5, 2006
California Voters, Beware

By Debra Saunders

California voters, beware.

There is a new trend with ballot initiatives. Rich guys raise money to put pet measures on the ballot. Voters approve the measures. Rich guys acquire petty fiefdoms that put buckets of government dollars under their thumbs.

Wealthy developer Robert Klein spearheaded the 2004 campaign for Proposition 71, the $3 billion stem-cell research measure. Wonder of wonders: Klein became chairman of the board that oversees the stem-cell program, campaign staffers got jobs with the new bureaucracy, and the legislature learned that, despite campaign rhetoric about sharing profits with taxpayers, Team Klein valued "the need to assure that essential medical research is not unreasonably hindered by intellectual property agreements."

This column, however, is about actor-activist Rob Reiner. In 1998, Reiner sponsored Proposition 10, which taxed California smokers an extra 50 cents per pack in order to fund early childhood education programs. Voters bit, and voila, Reiner became chairman of the state's First 5 California Children and Families Commission, which controls 20 percent of Proposition 10 receipts.

Team Reiner was well rewarded. Last month, the Los Angeles Times reported that First 5 spent $230 million -- of the $800 million it has controlled -- on advertising and public relations contracts with firms that had worked on the Proposition 10 campaign. (First 5 Executive Director Kris Perry wants you to know that most of the $230 million went to TV stations, newspapers and other media -- not to the ad agencies.)

The Times also reported that, at the very time Reiner was working to qualify his latest brainchild, "Preschool for All," which will be Proposition 82 on the June ballot, First 5 spent some $23 million on ads to promote -- you guessed it -- pre-school for all.

That's a no-no. State money is not supposed to bankroll political campaigns.

Reiner announced he was taking leave from the post "to avoid any political distractions." Taking leave? That's sweet, considering that Reiner's tenure for the post expired in 2004. He is chairman only because -- for some reason lost on Sacramento Republicans -- Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has not replaced him.

Reiner apparently plans on returning to his throne after the election, although Schwarzenegger's office issued a statement Friday that noted, "There is no express provision for a leave of absence" for Reiner. Lawyers are looking at it.

Last week, state Senate leader Don Perata withdrew his support for Proposition 82. Perata noted that the $23 million campaign was "over the line" and "a blatant effort to promote the initiative." More importantly: Proposition 82 is a bad idea.

As Perata wrote to Reiner, "The initiative pays more per pupil for a three-hour educational program than many K-12 schools are able to pay for a full school day." (Proposition 82 spokesman Nathan James responded, "If you create a program that's not well funded, you don't end up getting the benefits.")

Perata also noted that Proposition 82 would force public schools to compete for credentialed teachers. And: Trendy propositions that levy new taxes for pet programs are "one of the principle reasons why state government can't function effectively."

I don't usually agree with Perata, a liberal Democrat, but on all of the above, he is on the money.

There are other problems with Proposition 82. Many preschool operators oppose the Reiner measure because -- oh, joy -- it will bureaucratize preschool.

Reiner has a gift for finding a way to tax a minority of Californians (smokers, the rich) to pay for a program that is supposed to be great for everyone -- not that everyone should have to pay for it. Proposition 82 would raise some $2.6 billion annually by imposing a 1.7 percent tax on individuals who make more than $400,000 annually or couples who make more than $800,000.

Reiner has picked a highly volatile revenue stream, that booms and busts with the economy, to fund a permanent program. Worse, some millionaires likely will decide to leave California -- not just because of this 1.7 percent levy, but also because in 2004, voters approved a measure to add a 1 percent tax on income over $1 million for mental-health programs.

According to the state Department of Finance, earners with incomes over $1 million filed 0.2 percent of tax returns in 2003, but generated 24.2 percent of all personal income tax. That's $7.3 billion.

James, of the 82 camp, is sure that these taxes "would not cause people to pull up stakes and abandon California." Apparently, James has never been to Florida. Or Nevada.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell is a big Proposition 82 supporter. He told me, at "first blush, I really do not see a big problem" with the $23 million preschool ads, as he believes they caused preschool enrollment to rise.

Assembly GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield, however, does see a problem. "Instead of lining the pockets of wealthy Los Angeles advertising executives," McCarthy said in a statement, he has a bill that would set aside $42 million from the First 5 administrative and advertising budget and spend it on accelerated preschool programs.

Doesn't McCarthy understand that Reiner knows what's best for other people? Why, Reiner knows that all children are better off in a preschool program than at home. He knows that state taxpayers should pay double what the state pays for preschool, and improvements will follow. He knows that millionaires won't leave if faced with another soak-the-rich tax. In fact, Reiner knows so much, his First 5 fiefdom didn't hesitate to spend $23 million of state money to tell you how to think about preschool.

Copyright 2006 Creators Syndicate

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