The people vs. corporate power - Page 2

June ballot showcases the lopsided struggle against big money interests

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Who's holding the keys to your ballot box?
Guardian illustration by Gus D'Angelo

Leno said he's thrilled to see a diverse crowd of attorneys seeking judgeships: "This governor has failed horribly in his appointments, not only with the LGBT community, but with communities of color as well."

 

TWO COMPANIES TRY TO BUY CALIF.

The struggle between the broad public interest and the wealthy power brokers that have long-dominated California politics is most apparent in the state propositions, which have been certified and for which ballot arguments are now being collected by the California Secretary of State's Office.

Two of those ballot measures, Propositions 16 and 17, are blatantly self-serving efforts by a pair of powerful corporations to increase their profitability, however deceptively and with overwhelming amounts of campaign cash they are presented.

Prop. 16, sponsored by Pacific Gas & Electric Co., would require local governments to get two-thirds of voters to approve creation of energy programs like Clean Power SF, San Francisco's plan for developing renewable energy projects and selling that power directly to citizens.

As we've reported ("Battle royale," Jan. 13, and "PG&E attack mailer puts City Hall on defensive," Dec. 22, 2009), PG&E placed the measure on the ballot to avoid having to repeatedly crush public power initiatives around the state with multimillion dollar campaigns, even though political leaders like Leno and Sup. Ross Mirkarimi say the measure violates the state's community choice aggregation law. That law allows local governments to create energy programs and prohibits PG&E from interfering with those efforts.

"The unregulated behavior of corporate arrogance is killing our democracy. Prop. 17, sponsored by Mercury Insurance, would let companies increase car insurance premiums for a variety of reasons that are now prohibited by the 1988 measure Prop. 103. Mercury has continuously attacked that landmark law, using lawsuits, huge political contributions, sponsored legislation, and, according to newly released documents from the California Department of Insurance (see "The malevolence of Mercury Insurance," Feb. 10, Guardian Politics blog), blatantly illegal activity in setting premiums and excluding certain customers, such as artists, bartenders, and members of the military.

"The Mercury initiative is even more pernicious than what it was doing before," Harvey Rosenfield, who wrote Prop. 103 and works for Consumer Watchdog, told the Guardian. "Under Mercury's initiative, if you've never had prior insurance, you can be surcharged for the first time. Then they've thrown in some other tricks and traps."

Mercury spokesperson Coby King told us the company has been unfairly maligned and denies that the measure is simply about boosting its profits: "Prop. 103 is the law of the land, but to the extent there are improvements that can be made that are pro-business and pro-consumer, Mercury has not been shy about acting in the public interest."

Yet few public interest groups or public officials believe the claims being made by Mercury or PG&E, and they hope that the public won't be fooled.

"These are measures designed to give a financial advantage to a specific industry or company," U.S. Rep. John Garamendi, who battled Mercury as California's first insurance commissioner, told us. He strongly opposes both measures, but did say, "Money talks. It always has, particularly in propositions."

Yet Leno said he's a bit more hopeful: "Californians have been savvy in the past, and I do believe they'll be able to see through the tens of millions of dollars in misleading ads."

"To me, it's a classic case study of what's going on with the initiative process in California and with politics in general," said Derek Cressman, western regional director of California Common Cause. "There are two initiatives literally sponsored by corporations to push very narrow interests."