Ballot Propositions Attract Lopsided Spending

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"Follow the money."

Words to that effect were advised by Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee to young reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in 1973 as they tried to untangle the messy Watergate Affair that ultimately forced the resignation of President Richard Nixon.

Those words are equally valuable in tracking campaign expenditures for and against California's 11 statewide propositions on the Nov. 6 ballot.

As of Aug. 31, the last date supplied by the California Secretary of State, more than $155 million have been spent on the propositions -- and the election is still nearly two months away.

At this rate, it's likely that $300 million or more may be spent by Election Day trying to persuade Californians to vote for or against various proposals.

In several cases, expenditures are incredibly lopsided.

Jerry Brown's Proposition 30, a proposal that would temporarily raise state income and sales taxes mostly for public education, has drawn more than $26 million; opponents have raised less than $2 million.

The proposal has garnered support from a variety of groups ranging from unions to major corporations.

Molly Munger's Proposition 38, an effort to raise income taxes on nearly all Californians to support public education, has raised nearly $19 million -- virtually all of it from Munger.

Opponents have scraped together $30,000 -- not even enough to buy postage for a single statewide mailer.

Another interesting match-up is Proposition 37, which would require labels on genetically engineered foods.

Proponents, largely small organic food growers and consumer groups, have raised $3.4 million. That pales next to the nearly $25 million raised by the opposition led by Monsanto (more than $4.2 million), Kellogg, General Mills, Campbell Foods and major farm organizations.

One surprise on the ballot has been the massive financial support for Proposition 39, a proposal intended to close a huge tax loophole the legislature awarded to major corporations in 2009.

Proponents have raised $18.8 million, almost all of which has been supplied by hedge fund manager Thomas Steyer. To date, the "opposition" hasn't raised a dime.

Proposition 33 is equally interesting. Intended to give auto insurance more leeway in establishing rates, the initiative has drawn $8.3 million -- almost all from Mercury Insurance CEO George Joseph. Opponents have raised a paltry $88,000.

This proposition is a reprise of a similar proposition that failed in 2010, the same year Mercury Insurance was fined $500,000 for overcharging and discriminating against California drivers over a 15-year period.

The bottom line is simply this. Ballot propositions are notoriously confusing to the average voter. One way to understand their merit is to follow the money, because finding out who is in favor or opposed to a measure might help you understand what it's really all about.

Larry Gerston teaches political science at San Jose State University and is the political analyst for NBC Bay Area.

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