Prop. 61: The Money in the High-Stakes Campaign

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With November's election a few weeks away, all eyes are on the presidential race. But hiding in the shadows of the ballot are 17 propositions. Big money is flowing in to illuminate these initiatives with the hope of sticking out in a crowded field.

Leading the way is Proposition 61, a measure that would compare prescription drug costs for some state employees to federally negotiated low prices.

A group of local AIDS activists, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, is putting up more than $14 million to do what the they say the Legislature is unable to do: contain the rising costs of prescription drugs.

"This is really the first step on the road to lower drug prices across America," said Ged Kenslea, an AIDS Healthcare Foundation spokesperson. "Somebody's got to go first."

The idea is to require state programs such as Medicaid, CalPERS and the prison system to pay no more for prescription drugs than the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

While it will only affect about 20 percent of Californians, the opposition has been pumping in millions of dollars to defeat the initiative with almost all the money coming from pharmaceutical companies.

"This is an investment on part of the companies. They can spend $100 million against this and it's going to save them billions of dollars," said Bob Stern, the former president of the Center of Government Studies.

The companies have spent almost $87 million so far - six times what proponents have spent.

"Proposition 61 is a very badly flawed initiative," said Kathy Faibanks, a No on 61 spokeswoman. "It sounds great on its face. Who doesn't want lower drug prices? "

Fairbanks says the reason drug companies are spending so much is because it is a complicated issue.

"Will Proposition 61 solve the problem? Will it work? Will it do anything to benefit Californians? And the answer is no," Fairbanks said.

Stern says the motive is more likely financial.

Because we are talking about potentially billions of dollars of lost revenue, and not just in California, but throughout the country," he said.

According to the most recent records on the Secretary of States website, Johnson & Johnson, Merck and Pfizer have each contributed more than $7 million, and every other contributor on the list is part of the pharmaceutical industry.

"Clearly they feel it is going to affect them," Stern said. "If it wasn't going to affect them they wouldn't be spending the money."

The amount of spending, more than $100 million total, makes this the 11th most expensive proposition since 2002, according to an analysis by followthemoney.org, a non-profit that tracks political spending.

"When big money is spent against initiatives, they generally go down," Stern said.

The question for voters is whether Prop 61 is truly a cure for rising prescription drug costs, or is the campaign and the millions poured into it just another costly attempt to change public policy.

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