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Our No-Sweat Guide to Tomorrow's Ballot Propositions

Scott Lucas | November 5, 2012 | Lifestyle Story Politics City Life

Prop. 30

Upshot: Raises the sales tax for everyone and the income tax for those who make more than $250,000/ year. If not passed, the state would automatically cut around $6 billion in spending.

Background: The perpetual fault line in California politics is between Democrats who advocate a mix of spending cuts and revenue increases, versus Republicans who favor an all-cut approach to the budget. The state constitution gives the legislative GOP—despite its tiny minority status—a veto over tax proposals. To work around them, Governor Jerry Brown placed Prop. 30 on the ballot.

Pro: Were Prop. 30 not to pass, the state would be forced to make additional cuts to spending, concentrated mostly in education. Proponents argue that Prop. 30 would help balance the state budget. Major supporters include Governor Brown, the California Democratic Party, and unions.

Con: Opponents argue that the best way to address the state budget is by cutting “waste, bureaucracy, and administrative overhead.” Major groups in opposition include the Small Business Action Committee, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers’ Association, Park Place Asset Management, and the California Republican Party.

Newspaper Endorsements: 8-1

Crystal Ball: Polls predict that voters should pass the measure, but it will be a nailbiter. If they don’t, expect another round of major cuts, especially to education. The voters may be confused between this and Prop. 38, a rival tax measure.

Prop. 31

Upshot: A mélange of good-government reforms to the lawmaking process. It requires Sacramento to budget in two-year cycles (rather than every year as is currently done), and institutes what policy wonks call “pay-go,” which requires the legislature to fully fund new or expanded programs. It also requires a performance review of all state programs.

Background: Almost all observers agree that the budget process is broken. Many reforms have been proposed over the years, including the recent change to a “simple majority” for passage, though not for raising taxes. Prop. 31 ropes together several of the most popular of these reform proposals.

Pro: Proponents argue that Prop. 31 would require a balanced budget and encourage problem solving by local government. The good-government group California Forward provided most of the early support for the proposition, joined by Nicolas Berggruen, a billionaire investor.

Con: Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters argues, colorfully, that “Proposition 31 is akin to giving someone with a flesh-eating infection an aspirin to relieve the pain momentarily when the patient truly needs radical surgery or powerful drugs to stop the infection.”

Newspaper Endorsements: 5-4

Crystal Ball: A recent field poll showed the proposition losing badly. Neither the left nor the right loves it, leaving centrist voters to possibly carry the measure. Its complexity, however, may doom it.

Prop. 32

Upshot: Limits the ability of corporations and unions to fund political campaigns using payroll deductions. This measure would mostly affect union political spending.

Background: Unions—especially those made up of public-sector employees like teachers—provide much of the leftward-leaning funding in California politics. To fund their political efforts, they often take payroll deductions from their members. This proposition would ban these efforts. Versions of what its supporters call “paycheck protection” came before state voters in 1998 and 2005, and lost both times.

Pro: Supporters have argued that Prop. 32 would cut the tie between politicians and special interests, ensuring that no California worker would be forced to make a political contribution. Prominent supporters include the California Republican Party, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers’ Association, and Richard Munger, Jr., a wealthy Stanford physicist.

Con: Opponents argue that the measure one-sidedly harms union spending without affecting corporate money. Though the measure does ban companies from using payroll deductions to fund political campaigns, very few corporations actually do so. The proposition does not restrict the standard manners of corporate political spending. Opponents include the California Democratic Party, the California League of Women Voters, and unions.

Newspaper Endorsements: 0-9

Crystal Ball: This proposal has lost at the ballot box twice before, and polling indicates that it is likely to go down a third time as well. Were it to pass, expect that it would be tied up in a long court battle.

Prop. 33

Upshot: Allows auto insurance companies to offer a “continuous coverage” discount.

Background: In 1988, Proposition 103 dramatically reshaped California insurance regulations, which became overseen by an elected insurance commissioner. Under the new policies, auto insurance companies were forbidden from offering “persistency discounts” to customers who had never gone without auto coverage. The auto insurance companies tried to change that regulation in 2010 with Proposition 17, which was narrowly defeated. Prop. 33 is a modified version of that initiative.

Pro: Currently, consumers are eligible for the discount only if they stay with a single company. Proponents argue that this restriction gives a disincentive to consumers to shop around for insurance. The major funding for the proposition came from George Joseph, the chair of Mercury Insurance, who has given over $8 million.

Con: Opponents argue that the changes would hurt people who stopped driving for a good reason and now want to re-start their coverage. They argue that Mercury Insurance has a record of overcharging consumers.

Newspaper Endorsements: 0-9

Crystal Ball: In 2010, this measure was voted down by a narrow 52-48 margin. This time around, anything could happen.

Prop 34

Upshot: Bans the death penalty, and changes current death penalties to life without parole.

Background: The courts struck down California’s death penalty in the 1970s, but the voters brought it back in 1978. Since then, the state has executed thirteen people. California’s Death Row currently has more than 700 prisoners, and the state is one of 33 to have the death penalty.

Pro: Opponents of the death penalty point to the possibility of executing innocent people, and to the high cost of keeping inmates incarcerated through decades of appeals.

Con: Supporters of the death penalty point to its effect as a deterrent to crime and as an appropriate response to the most heinous crimes.

Newspaper Endorsements: 9-0

Crystal Ball: Three different polls in the last month have shown the initiative trailing badly.

Prop. 35

Upshot: Increases the scope of laws punishing human trafficking and the penalties for those convicted.

Background: Chris Kelly, who lost his race for Attorney General to Kamala Harris, helped draft this initiative, which has support from both the Democratic and Republican Parties, and a wide range of elected officials and activists.

Pro: The Internet has made it easier than ever for predators to engage in human trafficking, yet California’s laws have not caught up with these recent trends.

Con: Though no one is actually in favor of human trafficking and sex crimes, opponents claim that laws that criminalize prostitution can backfire.

Newspaper Endorsements: 5-4

Crystal Ball: According to polls, this proposition should cruise to victory.

Prop. 36

Upshot: Restricts “Three Strikes” penalties to serious or violent felony convictions.

Background: In 1994, state voters approved a system of criminal penalties called Three Strikes, mandating a life sentence for anyone convicted of three felony crimes. According to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, more than half of those convicted of second or third strikes had committed either a property or drug-related crime. In 2004, voters rejected a similar measure to restrict the scope of third strikes.

Pro: Supporters claim that the Three Strikes law should only be applied to violent of serious offenses. Current law overcrowds prisons with those being punished disproportionately for minor offenses.

Con: Opponents argue that the current law has dramatically reduced crime and should not be changed.

Newspaper Endorsements: 9-0

Crystal Ball: Recent polling suggests that Prop. 34 may pass, even though voters have rejected a version of it once before.

Prop. 37

Upshot: Requires labeling of genetically-modified foods. Background: The United States is one of the only modern industrial countries that does not require some manner of labeling of genetically-modified foods sold to consumers. This measure would be the first of its kind in this country.

Pro: Backers claim that people should know as much as possible about their food, and that some kinds of genetically-modified foods carry a health risk. Supporters include Michael Pollan who made his case in the New York Times, Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap, Amy’s Kitchen, and Clif Bar and Co.

Con: Giant agribusiness companies like Monsato, Dupont, and Conagra have raised more than $35 million to defeat the measure. They worry that it would open up potential lawsuits without providing any benefit to consumers.

Newspaper Endorsements: 3-6

Crystal Ball: The polling has been mixed, and opponents have almost unlimited resources to defeat it. Expect a late night on November 6 waiting for the returns.

Prop. 38

Upshot: Raises personal income tax rates.

Background: A competitor to Prop. 30 that would raise taxes in a different manner, and earmark most of the revenue for education spending.

Pro: Prop. 38’s main backer is Molly Munger, a Southern California attorney, who has donated more than $33 million for its passage. She argues that state education requires more funding.

Con: Backers of Prop. 30 have argued that having multiple competing measures on the same ballot makes it likely that both will lose.

Newspaper Endorsements: 2-7

Crystal Ball: Polling has consistently shown this proposition losing, but the real question is whether it brings down Prop. 30 with it as well.

Prop. 39

Upshot: Changes how multi-state business income tax is calculated, which would in effect increase those taxes. The state would raise an addition $1 billion per year.

Background: Firms that are located out of the state but do business here pay lower tax rates than those in the state. Several others states, including Texas, Illinois, and New Jersey, have adopted measures like this one, which puts in-state and out-of-state corporations on the same tax footing. Governor Schwarzenegger changed California's tax law during his term as part of a budget deal.

Pro: Supporters argue that out-of-state tax favorability came about as a loophole in the 2009 budget negotiations and that Prop. 39 closes it.

Con: Opponents argue that California already has a business-unfriendly climate and that a tax increase would hurt its economy.

Newspaper Endorsements: 8-1

Crystal Ball: Polls have been mixed. Expect this one to be a close vote either way.

Prop. 40

Upshot: Would approve the recent redistricting maps for the state senate.

Background: In 2008, voters passed Proposition 11, which put the job of drawing political districts in the hands of a bipartisan citizens commission. New boundaries are drawn every ten years, following the U.S. Census. This measure was put on the ballot by opponents of the way the commission drew the State Senate map.

Pro: A yes vote would retain the work of the citizen commission.

Con: In mid-July, after a court decision, opponents decided to suspend their campaign. There is currently no organized opposition.

Newspaper Endorsements: 9-0

Crystal Ball: Polls show that voters may be confused about this measure, but the expectation is that they will uphold the districts on election day.

Proposition A

Upshot: Would levy a $79 parcel tax to fund the beleaguered City College of San Francisco.

Background: The City College system relies in large part on funds from the state of California, which has been decreasing its spending in many areas, including higher education. For instance, in 2011, the Legislature cut that funding by $17 million, and deeper cuts are projected in future years. This measure would raise approximately $16 annually. This money would be used, in part, to offer academic classes, keep libraries and student support services open, and update technology.

Pro: CCSF serves more than 90,000 students annually, offering two-year degrees and workforce training. Supporters argue that this proposition is needed to offset the state cuts. Endorsements include most of the city’s political establishment.

Con: Opponents, including San Francisco’ Libertarian Party, point to the initial report of the Accreditation Commission, which stated that CCSF suffers from fiscal mismanagement. They argue that CCSF should cut non-essential spending like retiree benefits.

Newspaper Endorsements: 3-0

Crystal Ball: Higher education funding is usually a political winner, especially when the money goes directly to a local institution. However, this proposition needs to clear a 2/3-majority threshold, which is difficult even without its ongoing accreditation issues.

Proposition B

Upshot: Would allow the city to issue $195 million in bonds to go to neighborhood parks and waterfront open spaces.

Background: This money would go to seismic upgrades of park facilities, replacing unsafe playground equipment, and improving disabled accessibility. It isn’t a tax increase, but rather, it allows the city to borrow the money to fund these efforts. The Recreation and Parks Department has drawn flak lately for what critics call a policy of privatization.

Pro: Like Prop. A, most of the city’s political establishment is also supporting this one. They argue that some park facilities are out of date and need upgrades. It's not often that the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and the San Francisco Labor Council line up on the same side of an issue.

Con: Some progressive and neighborhood groups oppose the measure. Aaron Peskin, former President of the Board of Supervisors, claims that the Recreation and Parks Department is “bent on squeezing out maximum possible revenue from our parks,” and should be reformed before any bond money is allocated.

Newspaper Endorsements: 3-0

Crystal Ball: A two-thirds majority might be a tough climb given the opposition of various neighborhood groups.

Proposition C

Upshot: Would allow the city to create an affordable housing fund to support low- and moderate-income housing. This measure resulted from a compromise between housing activists and the real estate industry.

Background: Although the city currently spends funds to support affordable housing, this proposition would streamline these efforts and make up some of the slack after the state shuttered its redevelopment agencies, which used to carry out similar housing programs. The fund would start at $20 million and gradually grow to $50 million.

Pro: Supporters include Mayor Lee, most of the Board of Supes, housing activists, and the real estate industry. They argue that Prop. C will both create jobs and provide housing.

Con: Opponents include Starchild, a perennial Libertarian candidate and self-described “erotic service provider.” Their argument is that the redevelopment agencies left a legacy of waste and racism, and that this proposal would not actually make housing more affordable.

Newspaper Endorsements: 3-0

Crystal Ball: As much as we love Starchild, the 50 percent threshold for Prop. C makes it a likely winner.

Proposition D

Upshot: Currently, the mayor, sheriff, and the district attorney are elected in one election cycle, but the city attorney and treasurer in another, two years later. This proposition would put all of those offices onto the same November ballot.

Background: The mayor, sheriff, and district attorney will all be up for election in November, 2015. The city attorney and treasurer, on the other hand, will be up in November, 2013. If passed, this proposition would consolidate those elections onto the same year, staring in 2015.

Pro: Because the city attorney and treasurer are currently elected in off-year elections, voter turnout in those races tends to be lower. Having staggered elections costs the city an extra $1 million per year over the costs of having a consolidated election.

Con: Opponents argue that more frequent elections are good for democracy. Some of them quote the ancient Greek democrats on that point (which is why we love to live in San Francisco).

Newspaper Endorsements: 3-0

Crystal Ball: Pericles, Thucydides, and Solon notwithstanding, this one probably passes.

Proposition E

Upshot: Changes the way the business taxes are calculated from a payroll system to a gross receipts basis. Would probably lower taxes on small businesses and raise them on large ones.

Background: Currently, businesses pay taxes to the city based on how many people they employ. This tax is a flat 1.5 percent of payroll costs for all firms, except those with under $250,00 of payroll. Under the new proposal, the city would institute a progressive tax on businesses, calculated according to gross receipts (i.e. how much cash they take in). Receipts under $1 million per year would be exempt, and those over the threshold would be subject to an increasing tax rate. The city controller has determined that the two system would generate equivalent returns to the city.

Pro: Mayor Lee, all of the current supes, tech VC Ron Conway’s, and even the San Francisco Republican Party are all in favor. The basic argument is that the new system would be more fair, help small businesses, and improve the city’s business climate.

Con: The San Francisco Libertarian Party is opposed because they believe it would reduce employment and that the new tax would generate more for the City than the current system.

Newspaper Endorsements: 3-0

Crystal Ball: Democrats. Republicans. The Council of Community Organizations. SF Citi. Cats and dogs living together! It's hard to see how a proposal with this wide of support could fail.

Proposition F

Upshot: Requires the city to prepare a plan for draining the Hetch Hetchy resevoir and restoring the land to the National Park Service.

Background: Where does our water come from? In 1923, San Francisco built a dam across the Tuolumne River and created an enormous reservoir out of the Hetch Hetchy Valley near Yosemite National Park. Our water has come directly from there ever since. If passed, this proposition would require a study of how to transform San Francisco’s water supply. After developed, that plan would go before the voters for approval.

Pro: Naturalist John Muir himself called the Hetch Hetchy Valley “Yosemite’s twin” and San Francisco is the only city in the country that owns a dam in the middle of a National Park. Proponents, including many environmentalists, argue that San Francisco should shift toward a less environmentally-damaging water source.

Con: Mayor Lee called this idea “stupid” and “insane,” a view shared by most of the City’s heavy-hitters (if not in quite that blunt of language). Even Senator Dianne Feinstein has weighed in with her opposition, saying that the proposal would jeopardize San Francisco’s water supply.

Newspaper Endorsements: 0-2 (1 no position)

Crystal Ball: Forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown.

Proposition G

Upshot: A non-binding resolution that would set city policy to be that corporations should not have the same political rights as people.

Background: In 2010, a closely-divided Supreme Court ruled that corporations were entitled to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections. One of the bases for this ruling was a legal doctrine known as “corporate personhood,” which holds that businesses have an equivalent standing to human beings. Republican candidate Mitt Romney famously endorsed this idea from the campaign trail, when he remarked that, “Corporations are people too, my friend.”

Pro: People opposed to corporate personhood point to the corrupting nature of money in the political system, as well as the inherent absuridity of the doctrine.

Con: One common argument in favor of corporate personhood is that people acting in a group, which in some sense is what a corporation represents, shouldn't lose the rights that they enjoy individually.

Newspaper Endorsements: 2-0 (1 no position)

Crystal Ball: Don’t be surprised if San Francisco decides to stick it to the Man on this one.

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