California to vote on broad-impact ballot initiatives

Bilingual teaching, union dues on list

SACRAMENTO – California voters are about to strike again.


Having ignited national debates over the past 20 years over issues ranging from tax cuts to school vouchers to affirmative action, Golden State voters this year will go to the polls to decide on ballot questions that could reverberate far beyond the state’s borders.


The most-watched initiative slated for the June primary is Proposition 227, also known as English Language in Public Schools, sponsored by software entrepreneur Ron Unz, a measure that would roll back the state’s extensive bilingual education programs.


A second measure could sharply curtail the use by unions of members’ dues for political lobbying, a campaign being waged in other state capitals and on Capitol Hill.


While Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Al Cecchi has denounced the initiative process as “legislative vigilantism,” Mr. Unz, a former GOP candidate for governor, defends the system.


“It was put in place because of the difficulty of ordinary people getting things done through the legislature,” he said. “Most years, the legislature can’t even pass a budget.”


According to Field poll last month, 66 percent of voters favor the anti- bilingual-education measure, including 60 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of blacks. Even among the state’s Hispanic voters, 46 percent said they favor the measure, compared with 45 percent opposed. State Attorney General Dan Lungren, Republican candidate for governor, has yet to take a position on the measure.


The measure would mandate the use of English in the state’s public school classrooms while providing for a one-year program of “sheltered immersion” for children not fluent in English. The proposition requires spending $50 million per year for 10 years for “limited English proficiency” instruction, a measure that has drawn fire from some conservatives opposed to bilingual education.


The California Association of Bilingual Educators and state teachers unions oppose the measure, also attacked by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund as anti-Hispanic.


Prop 226 would require unions to obtain the permission of members before using union dues or fees for political contributions. The measure requires unions to keep records of how contributions are spent and also prohibits foreign residents and governments from making political contributions to state candidates. In the Field poll, 71 percent of voters favored the measure.


Also submitted for voters’ consideration this year:


* Proposition 223 would prohibit state school districts from spending more than a nickel of every budget dollar on administration. The initiative is backed both by the state’s teachers unions and by Republican Darrell Issa, the San Diego businessman running for Democrat Barbara Boxer’s Senate seat.


* While term limits for state officials are already in effect, Proposition 225 would put the state on record in support of a constitutional amendment limiting senators to two terms and representatives to three.


The initiative system has proved to be a two-edged sword. A 1994 proposition to permit school vouchers failed, and Proposition 187, eliminating public services for illegal immigrants, has been tied up in the courts since its 1994 passage. Proposition 209 in 1996, banning state race and gender preferences, also faced stiff legal challenges but eventually became law.


Even Proposition 13, the famous 1978 initiative that inspired a national tax revolt, continues to take its lumps.


The measure capped property tax rates at 1 percent and required a two-thirds vote of the legislature to raise state taxes. Despite opposition by then-Gov. Jerry Brown, 65 percent of state voters approved the measure, since blamed for what some liberals call the “Mississippification” of California.


“That’s wrong,” said Larry McCarthy, president of the California Taxpayers Association, which initially opposed the measure but has come to support it.


“There was no precipitous drop in revenue, and this discredits the concept that we are doing huge damage to public services,” he said.


Despite the criticism of the process, Mr. McCarthy said there was little chance voters would agree to change it. “It’s their way of protecting their interests,” he said. “The public has been remarkably focused. We have a more enlightened electorate.”


Some 50 other initiatives are now attempting to qualify for the November ballot. They include one backed by Rob Reiner, formerly a star on television’s “All in the Family” and director of “When Harry Met Sally . . .” and other films.


Now chairman of California Children and Families First, Mr. Reiner seeks to increase the tax on cigarettes by 50 cents a pack and spend the revenues on programs for children.


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