If you’ve felt inundated by mailers, text messages and TV ads about California’s 12 ballot propositions recently, it’s because there’s been a record-breaking amount of cash this year funneled into campaigns looking to sway your vote.
As of Monday, campaigns for and against the initiatives on this year’s ballot have raised a combined $766 million.
“The amount of money really is absolutely astonishing,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
The most expensive fight by far is Proposition 22, which would classify app-based drivers as independent contractors. Tech companies like Uber, Lyft and DoorDash have spent a combined $200 million on it.
“It shows that there's so much at stake this election cycle,” Levinson said. “If you look at how much money for instance, the gig economy companies have spent, it shows how much money they think they might lose if they don't win this election.”
Propositions to change property taxes, rent control laws and dialysis clinic regulations have also become $100-million-plus fights.
But Levinson noted that despite the mountains of cash, campaigns on either side of a ballot issue are competing for voters’ attention — not just with each other, but with the contentious presidential election.
“It's this weird space where we have really consequential questions on our ballot, we have tons of money being poured into these issues, and we're going to determine the face and shape of government in California for a long time to come,” she said. “And in a strange way, there’s low information.”
Mark Baldassare, president and CEO of the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California says polling from his organization has consistently shown that voters like weighing in on policy issues through the ballot propositions.
“On the other hand, most Californians — two out of three, in our most recent poll — feel that the initiative process in California today is controlled by special interests,” Baldassare said recently on the California State of Mind podcast. “Voters approach initiatives on the ballot with a certain amount of skepticism.”
But Levinson notes the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled donations to political issues, including ballot initiatives, as a form of protected speech, meaning big money will continue to be a driving force in California’s ballot measures for the foreseeable future.
These are the ballot propositions attracting the biggest mountains of cash this cycle:
Total money: $224.7 Million
This polarizing measure will determine the future of workers for app-based delivery services in the Golden State.
Tech giants including Uber, Lyft and DoorDash filed this measure in response to California’s new labor law, Assembly Bill 5, which required most independent contractors to be reclassified as employees and given benefits including overtime pay, workers comp and paid sick leave. Gig economy companies have since pumped just over $200 million into Proposition 22, which would create a new employment category for their drivers and require them to provide a narrower set of benefits including a minimum earnings guarantee and accident insurance.
Opponents — largely labor unions — have spent $20 million fighting the measure, making Proposition 22 the most expensive and the most financially lopsided proposition on this year’s ballot.
Total money: $142 million
If passed, Proposition 15 would be perhaps the most consequential change to California’s property tax laws since 1978’s Proposition 13. The measure known as “split roll” would raise taxes on commercial properties valued above $3 million and would raise up to $11.5 billion for schools and local governments.
Supporters say it would close tax loopholes that allow corporations to pay taxes based on property value assessments from decades ago. And while the initiative is written to benefit small businesses, opponents — including business groups like the California Business Roundtable — argue consumers and small businesses would still end up paying a large share of the costs. They’re spending more than $74 million to keep their own taxes from going up.
Total money: $135 million
Proposition 21 is returning to the ballot after voters rejected a similar measure in 2018. The proposition would allow local governments to expand rent control ordinances for landlords with three or more rental properties, but opponents say it would exacerbate California’s housing shortage.
The “yes” campaign is funded largely by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which also pushed the previous initiative. Opponents include Gov. Gavin Newsom, and other elected officials, though the “no” campaign is funded largely by a coalition of business and residential landowners.
Total money: $114.2 million
The final ballot measure to break the $100 million mark, Proposition 23, is another issue that may seem familiar to 2018 voters. Backed by the health care workers union SEIU-UHW West, Proposition 23 would impose new regulations and staffing requirements on kidney dialysis clinics. Dialysis companies like DaVita have spent more than $100 million fighting the measure.
Find out more about the propositions on California's November 2020 ballot.
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