In California, some things are so predictable; you can count on them every year, like the Santa Ana winds in Los Angeles and the fog in San Francisco. And at least once every four years, you can likewise count on a new budget-busting boondoggle to go on the ballot for California voters.
Proposition 29, a $735 million annual tobacco tax, is the newest addition to the list. Justified as the "California Cancer Research Act," it would create a new unaccountable state bureaucracy that can spend millions each year on salaries, benefits and travel. The measure, which would hike the tax on cigarettes by $1 per pack, is on California's June 2012 ballot. The money raised from this tax hike would be administered by a nine-member commission stacked with political cronies, (four appointed by California's governor and two appointed by his director of Public Health) who oversee all funds and whose spending decisions cannot be touched -- not even by the governor -- for at least 15 years. There isn't even a provision in the measure to prevent against conflicts of interest.
Cancer research is important. That said, California cannot afford to siphon off a billion dollars in taxes for a new spending program when we have a budget deficit greater than $10 billion and we still can't pay for critical needs like education and highways. To attempt to solve the worldwide problem of cancer with a targeted tax increase on the ever-decreasing minority population of California smokers is just bad public and tax policy.
A peek behind the curtain of this initiative is very instructive. Former State Sen. Don Perata, the career politician who wrote Prop. 29, was recently exposed by the San Francisco Chronicle for giving Prop. 29 campaign funds to an Oakland City councilman he was simultaneously lobbying. Perata is looking forward to getting his hands on even more taxpayer money if Prop. 29 passes.
As if this weren't enough, there is no requirement that any of the new tax revenue be spent on research in California, or even the United States. Tax money raised from Californians should be spent in California to create jobs, not sent overseas to unseen and unaccountable "research" institutions.
The initiative process is a vital safety valve for California voters and those in 21 other states. But it is also susceptible to abuse by well-funded special interests who create initiatives from which they would profit personally. They have often won the day by wrapping themselves in "apple pie and motherhood" causes like "clean water," "children's hospitals" and yes, "cancer research."
California cannot afford ballot box budgeting and shameless profiteering by special interests at a time when its roads are crumbling and tens of thousands of its educators are being given pink slips. The Golden State is becoming more tarnished by the day -- voting no on Prop. 29 is just a small step in returning it to its former luster.
Lew Uhler is the Founder and President of the National Tax Limitation Committee