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February 29, 2016

CMA Capitol Insight is a biweekly column by veteran journalist Anthony York, reporting on the inner workings of the state Legislature.

Rollercoaster of a Week

It was a rollercoaster week for Gov. Jerry Brown and his effort to reform the state’s criminal justice system. A judge in Sacramento last week ruled the governor’s initiative violated a new state law regarding amendments to ballot measure proposals. By the end of the week, the state Supreme Court had stayed the ruling, allowing the measure to begin gathering signatures for the November ballot, but the measure’s fate still rests in the hands of the full high court.

The proposal itself is a linchpin for Gov. Brown’s criminal justice policy, which has been a central part of his governorship since retaking the office in 2011. Brown’s proposal would make it easier for certain nonviolent offenders to obtain parole, and give judges, not prosecutors, the ability to decide whether or not violent juvenile offenders should be tried as adults.

The lower court ruled against the governor on procedural grounds. Brown’s political team offered his proposal as an amendment to a juvenile justice initiative that was filed in December. But the court ruled that the amendment was too substantive to be considered a simple amendment, and should be subject to more public review.

The ruling shook up the November 2016 ballot picture, with one of the most high-profile proposals now in doubt. The measure’s ultimate fate will be decided by the state Supreme Court, which is expected to rule on whether the governor’s plan can go forward as early as this week.

Criminal justice has been central to Brown throughout all four terms of his governorship. During his first stint in office, Brown signed some of the mandatory sentencing laws that many courts, advocates and Democrats have been trying to undo since. Brown himself has called for more discretion in the criminal justice process.

Brown has wrestled with federal receivers who have controlled the state’s prisons for years, ruling they are dangerously overcrowded and putting pressure on the administration to lower the state’s prison population or build more facilities to house inmates. Brown has pushed through proposals to divert thousands of lower-level offenders to county jails instead of state prison, but has been hamstrung by the federal receivers and Republicans in the legislature in his efforts to overhaul the state’s criminal justice system. This latest proposal is vehemently opposed by the District Attorneys Association, which filed the suit to have the measure taken off the November ballot.

Speaking of the November ballot, the California Medical Association (CMA)-backed proposal to implement a new tax on tobacco products to raise money for health care and other needs received a boost at this weekend’s California Democratic Party (CDP) Convention, when the measure received the party’s official endorsement.

The CDP joins CMA, the California Dental Association, SEIU California, the American Heart Association, the American Lung Association in California, the American Cancer Society, Cancer Action Network, philanthropist Tom Steyer, Blue Shield of California, the California Hospital Association and many others to support the Save Lives California campaign and pass the California Healthcare, Research and Prevention Tobacco Act of 2016.

Smoking is the number one cause of preventable death in our state, killing 40,000 Californians annually. Studies show that for every 10 percent increase in the cost of a pack of cigarettes, youth smoking drops by up to 6.5 percent.

Meanwhile, another measure that would have implemented a new property tax surcharge on high-value properties was abandoned this week, as advocates decided not to go ahead with the proposal. The measure would have used the money to pay for early-childhood education and other anti-poverty programs, but was seen as a potential threat to the efforts to extend the upper-income taxes in Proposition 30. The Prop. 30 extension measure continues its way toward the ballot, but the idea of higher property taxes could yet reemerge in the broader tax reform discussion.

California’s revenue system is volatile, with massive swings from year to year, based on the unpredictability of income and capital gains taxes, which now make up more than 60 percent of our general fund revenues. Property and sales taxes offer more stability, but have their own sets of political pitfalls attached to them.

Regardless of what happens to the Prop. 30 extension effort, tax reform is likely to be a major issue in 2018, when California elects a new governor and the original Proposition 30 income taxes begin to expire.


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