A Guy Who Studies Ballot Props for Fun, Friends and No Profit
Pete Stahl, the Cincinnatus of California, may be the only man in the state opposing Prop. 1F who is not an elected official.
The measure on the May 19 special election ballot calls for a ban on raises for state officeholders in any year when the not-so-Golden State is in deficit. At a time when California politicians rank lower in public esteem than bankers, reporters and possibly lawyers, look for 1F to pass by a margin not seen since Kim Jong-il was last re-elected Dear Leader in North Korea.
The 49-year old Stahl is a Mountain View web designer who’s devoted a fair chunk of his adulthood to closely, if not obsessively, deconstructing California initiatives, then publishing his analyses as (warning to consultants: close your eyes) a public service. He considers Prop 1F a cheap shot; his hyper-developed good government gene was deeply offended when he read about it, so he dashed off a written argument to the Secretary of State.
“Legislators won’t change their voting behavior just because of a threatened salary freeze,” reads his 48-word statement in the voter handbook. “This petty, vindictive attempt to punish the Legislature will give us no relief from budget stalemates, while unfairly penalizing innocent bystanders such as the Secretary of State and Board of Equalization.”
Innocent bystander or not, SOS Debra Bowen miffed Stahl by allowing only one business day for arguments to be submitted for the hurry-up May 19 special: “One business day to submit arguments pro and against,” he complained, in a tone that someone else might use after, oh say, witnessing a hit-and-run. “This election was really slapped together quickly.”
Stahl plans to have his views on Props. 1A-1E posted on his web site, Pete Rates the Propositions, at least a month before the election. Given that the five budget-related measures are about as complicated as string theory, it’s good to know that somebody is taking the time to actually read and understand them, unlike the legislators who put them on the ballot.
His site is a kind of Hiram Johnson treasure trove, featuring recommendations for every state ballot measure going back to 1994. Among other things, he has a “best of” section which categorizes his views on memorable props in four color-coded categories, including an annual argument on one prop that he offers in the style of a different poet, including not only Blake, Coleridge and Poe, but also Masaoka Shiki, Ernest Lawrence Thayer and Dr. Seuss.
For Prop. 44, a March 2002 initiative about disciplining chiropractors, for example, he wrote a knock-off of W.S. Gilbert:
“Here we have the very model of a modern proposition,
One to which — as you’ll discover — there’s no cogent opposition.
We need laws to stop insurance fraud by doctors chiropractic.
But a ballot proposition? Seems a bit anti-climactic.
There are laws preventing fraud for both physicians and attorneys,
But not those manipulating patients’ muscles upon gurney.”
It goes on for a while, but you get the idea.
Stahl has been distributing his dissections of props since 1980, beginning with Xeroxes of typed pages given out to friends and family members (the process of scanning in his old stuff, he says, is “going to take me the rest of my life”).
“The first issue was 20 copies,” he recalled. “By 1985 the printing went to more than 100 people. I left them on library tables, passed them out to strangers and at a Stanford football game. Most people who bothered to read it said, ‘I need this.’”
These days, he gets about 20,000 unique visitors per election cycle who check out his stuff, which he thinks will be in demand in advance of the Einstein Election on May 19. “Fewer people will vote,” he said, “But more of those who will depend on my blog.”
Don’t look now, but the prestigious Golden State Center of the Claremont Institute agrees with Mr. Stahl! See http://www.claremont.org/projects/pageID.2623/.
And so does the West Hollywood Democratic Club, which voted No on 1A, 1C, 1D, and 1F.
Every intelligent Californian will vote no on 1F. Not because legislators deserve pay raises — the fact is their salaries are already controlled by an independent commission who tend to avoid pay raises when times are tough. But the most important reason to vote NO is to remind the idiots who put this on the ballot that we are not as stupid as they think we are. This is empty populist symbolism masquerading as budget reform. Give us a chance to permanently eliminate all legislative salaries whenever the budget late or in deficit and we’ll talk!
On the other hand, PPIC’s most recent poll showed 81% in favor of 1F, with 67% saying they thought it would be either somewhat or very effective in preventing deficits. Which is kind of mind-boggling in terms of misunderstanding the state government.