As a native Californian, I have become accustomed to the traffic jam and general mayhem that accompanies a presidential visit to the Los Angeles area. For that reason, I also never expect to get to see the president in my home state without a buying a several thousand-dollar dinner invitation. This is simply because California donors contribute large amounts to Democratic causes and, as everyone is well aware, the state of California always goes blue. Both candidates and the media treat affairs in the Golden State like this during the election season: They skim over the issues the state is tackling and focus primarily on swing states like Ohio or Florida.
But, in terms of the 2012 election, California is much more than a cash cow for the Democratic Party. The issues Californians are weighing in on this election season have national consequences.
California has an economy larger than most countries in the world (it usually fluctuates between being the fifth and eighth largest). It is host to diverse industries, from high-level technology firms (think Google and Facebook) to agricultural havens in the central part of the state to a stead entertainment and tourist industry. Even more so, California, with its citizen-proposed ballot initiative system, is a testing ground for policy implemented via direct democracy.
On November 6, ballot initiatives claiming to take several major and pressing political issues will appear before California voters. These include education funding and revenue raising, the elimination of the death penalty, and the role of unions and paycheck deductions in campaign finance. All of these topics are controversial issues and all of them have implications that spread far beyond just the state of California. There are many propositions on the California ballot, but, the two below mentioned issues give us an idea of how California’s elections can have widespread effects.
Proposition 30: Tax increases to mend the budget deficit and fund California schools
A merger of Governor Jerry Brown’s (D) tax proposal and the Millionaire’s Tax, proposed by several unions and non-profits, Proposition 30 would increase California’s sales tax from 7.25% to 7.5% and increase taxes on taxpayers making over $250,000 (via new tax brackets). The non-partisan California Legislative Analyst’s Office estimates that this will bring in around $6.8 billion to struggling state coffers.
Beyond its promise to help right an increasingly insolvent California budget, Proposition 30 has also been deemed critical for public education funding in the state. In the University of California system alone, the failure of Proposition 30 to pass would mean a 20% mid-year tuition increase for students. California public education is moving more toward a private, tuition-based model and much farther away from a public good model. The state has been prized for its high-quality publicly funded system in the past, but, state budget woes put the future of high-quality public education in jeopardy, not just in California, but, in states with similar public systems (for example: New York). A faltering system in California begs the national question of whether or not this nation finds quality public higher education to be a priority.
Proposition 34: Eliminate the death penalty
Proposition 34, if passed, would eliminate the death penalty as a sentence in California and replace it with life in prison without the possibility of parole. California is one of 33 states that allows the use of the death penalty and currently has 725 people on death row. However, it has executed only 13 inmates since 1978.
The debate over the death penalty is national in scope and there are very strong arguments on either side of the debate. Aside from the moral and crime deterrent arguments surrounding the death penalty, there is also a strong financial aspect. It is argued that implementing the death penalty costs California $184 million per year (and about $4 billion to execute 13 inmates since 1978). With a weak economy, the possibility that cash-strapped states, like California, will consider the death penalty ban will probably only increase.
As Californians make their decisions on propositions such as 30 and 34, they are making choices that could dramatically influence the actions of other states. If California were to ban the death penalty, we can expect to see growing movements to do the same in other areas of the country. Similarly, if California’s budget woes push its system of higher education further toward privatization, we may see other states implementing similar models. California voters are not just a slice of the country that one can write off as voting “blue” on election day, they will be making monumental policy decisions that may change trends nationwide.