Corporate greed masquerading as the 'Taxpayer's Right to Vote,' and another example of the corporate perversion of the 'citizens initiative' process in California...
By Ernest A. Canning on 5/9/2010, 7:19pm PT  

Guest blogged by Ernest A. Canning

On California's June ballot this year, a measure paid for and deceptively represented by one major corporate sponsor, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), purports to be a "Taxpayers Right to Vote Act." In truth, the initiative represents one corporation's attempt to pervert the "citizen's initiative" process by spending millions to deceive voters into believing they can push back against the vaguely socialist-sounding notion of "government-run electric service."

The measure is anything but a "Taxpayers Right to Vote Act," and that name itself has even been out-and-out rejected for use on the ballot by the state's Attorney General --- not that it has stopped PG&E from misleadingly selling it that way to the public in a multi-million dollar television ad buy and direct-mail propaganda campaign...

Perfect Corporate Storm

In "Citizens United: A Case Which Will Live in Infamy," I urged that the expansion of unlimited "free speech" rights to private, fictional entities known as "corporations" came at the expense of the underpinnings of a vibrant "free press" as envisioned by the framers of the U.S. Constitution; a press which would act as the ultimate check against the abuse of power by ensuring that the public has access to vital, democracy-sustaining information.

In "Meg Whitman, Wall Street, 'Billionaire Sociopaths' and the Media 'Substance Deficit'," I provided a classic example of how a deficit of actual substance offered by the corporate mainstream media to citizens, coupled with the privatization of the electoral process, opened the door to a "one-sided political phenomenon which has seen a stealth candidate [Whitman], with disturbing connections to Goldman Sachs, soar to the top of the polls," virtually without notice of those ties being given by the media to the public. I raised the concern that this one-sided phenomenon could provide Wall Street with (yet another) means to fleece California.

And now, the messages of the two essays cited above combine to form the perfect, deceptive corporatist storm in the guise of a blitzkrieg of corporate propaganda in support of the Prop 16 initiative scheduled to appear on the June 2010 California ballot.

Though the giant private utility company sponsoring it continues to describe the measure as the "Taxpayer Right to Vote Act," PG&E chairman Peter Darbee, has more aptly acknowledged, per a lawsuit filed by a coalition of public utilities, that despite the populist resonance of the unforgivably misleading title used to sell it, the initiative represents little more than one corporation's well-funded effort "to choke off competition."

The prospects of California citizens becoming as well-informed about the truth behind the measure as they undoubtedly will be disinformed by the corporate publicity campaign in favor of it by June, remain dismal at best --- particularly given the track record of the state's corporate mainstream media.

Corporate Perversion of 'Direct Democracy'

As observed by Robert N. Stern of the Center for Governmental Studies, the initiative process in California began as a progressive exercise in direct democracy in the early part of the last century, intended to counter the corrupting influence of corporate power over the state legislature, especially as then exercised by the Southern Pacific Railroad.

Nearly a century has passed since Governor Hiram Johnson (R-CA) placed three forms of direct democracy --- "initiative, referendum, and recall --- on the ballot. They were overwhelmingly approved by the voters" in 1911, during a progressive-era California election which also ushered in a woman's right to vote in California elections. That right would not be enshrined at the federal level until Aug. 18, 1920 when the 19th Amendment was ratified.

The idea was to permit ordinary citizens to bypass the state legislature by initiating and then voting on ballot measures directly.

Unfortunately, in 1911 Governor Johnson and other progressive reformers failed to foresee the enormous difficulty ordinary citizens would encounter in effectuating this form of direct democracy.

The 1910 population in California was slightly more than 2.3 million. Today, it is estimated to be in excess of 36 million.

In order to qualify an initiative for a new state statute, proponents must, within 150 days of the date the CA Attorney General reviews the initiative and provides a ballot title secure registered voter signatures of 5% of the votes cast for all candidates for governor in the preceding election. For an initiative which amends the California constitution, the proponent must gather signatures equal to 8% of all votes cast for governor in the last election. In 2010, this meant garnering 433,971 validated signatures for a state statute initiative and 694,354 validated signatures for a constitutional amendment just to see a measure placed on the ballot.

As noted in a November 2000 study by the Public Policy Institute of California [PDF], the difficulty in meeting these numbers led to an "initiative industrial complex" which includes "companies providing services such as signature gathering, legal services, and campaign consulting" that operates continually, and not just during election years. "The days of romanticizing it as the citizens' initiative process are long over."

Of the more than 90 propositions that were either submitted to the California Elections Office or proposed by the state legislature for the June 8 and Nov. 2, 2010 elections, only five measures qualified for the June 8 ballot.

Proposition 16 is one of only two measures on the June 8 ballot which was qualified as a constitutional amendment. The average cost just to place those two constitutional amendments on the ballot was $2.2 million per initiative. How many citizens' groups can afford that, do you suppose?

In "Engineering California's Economic Collapse," I recounted how California's "looming economic disaster stems from a greed-based, Republican agenda which seeks to destroy government, replacing its public functions --- health, education, safety --- with a privatized, for profit system --- an agenda which has succeeded in large measure in California because it is the only state where a 2/3 majority approval is required on all revenue and budget legislation."

I pointed to George Lakoff's "California Democracy Act," a proposed ballot initiative, which sought to end the stranglehold the GOP held on the budget process, despite solid Democratic majorities in the California legislature, by permitting budget and revenue legislation to pass through the statehouse by a simple majority.

Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times reported that Lakoff's effort to qualify the initiative for the June 2010 ballot fell short. Lakoff told Hiltzik, "We had to depend on volunteers, and you absolutely need professional signature gatherers." And, of course, the $2.2 million needed to purchase them.

The enormous advantage to corporate wealth and power only begins with the near impossible numbers faced by grass roots organizations in qualifying a measure for the ballot. Stern observes that "initiatives are frequently too long and complex. Many voters lack the education, reading skills, or time to fully understand ballot initiatives." Proponents of corporate-sponsored initiatives take advantage of this by "misleading slate mailers and broadcast advertising...Voters have few sources of objective information available to them during initiative campaigns."

Deception has been employed even during the signature gathering process, as occurred when scores of California voters were recently duped into signing what they thought was a marijuana legalization initiative only to later learn that they had been re-registered as Republicans --- an example of voter registration fraud that James O'Keefe, Andrew Breitbart and the rest of the ACORN-bashing crowd at Fox "News" chose to ignore for some reason.

The same media substance deficit which aids the ability of a stealth Wall Street-connected billionaire to project a deceptively favorable self-image, permits wealthy corporations to mount one-sided, deceptive campaigns in order to secure special interest state constitutional amendments, which, once approved by the voters, cannot be overturned by the state legislature.

As noted in "Meg Whitman, Wall Street, 'Billionaire Sociopaths' and the Media 'Substance Deficit,'" citing the March 11, 2010 USC study [PDF], where 68% of L.A. area citizens rely on local TV stations as their primary source of "news," what they receive, when their attention is not being diverted by celebrity gossip, can in no sense be described as journalism.

As the report found, during a typical 30-minute L.A. TV "news" broadcast, just 23 seconds are devoted to local education, health care, and law enforcement issues as compared to 8 minutes and 25 seconds of commercial advertising and an additional 2 minutes and 10 seconds to "teasers" promising coverage to come.

The 2000 Public Policy Institute of California study revealed that "two in three Californians believe that the media...is the most influential source of information when it comes to voters' decisions on whether to vote yes or no on initiatives...The majority of Californians (53%) believe that voters are not receiving enough information to decide how to vote on initiatives, while 15 percent say there is 'more than enough' information..."

PG&E's Deceptive 'Power Play'

For many Californians the primary source of information they currently receive about the June 2010 election is coming by way of a propaganda blitz from three sources: the dueling political ads from Republican Gubernatorial candidates Steve Poizner and Meg Whitman and the pro-Proposition 16 ad (video below), which Ted Redmond of Local Clean Energy described as a $30 million expenditure of rate-payer monies for an ad that is "breathtaking in the majesty of its lies and misinformation." According to the Sacramento Bee, "PG&E has spent $34.5 million promoting the proposition."

Where the ad describes the measure as "The Taxpayers Right to Vote Act," the California Attorney General's office rejected [PDF] that label. It will be described on the ballot as "The New Two-Thirds Requirement for Local Public Electricity Providers." Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times suggested a more apt title would be the "'Immunize PG&E from Competition' initiative."

San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, discussing the city's decision to join with a coalition of public utilities in a lawsuit which seeks to remove the measure from the ballot, said Proposition 16 has "no bearing on taxation and government spending...Despite what its proponents would have us believe, Prop 16 doesn't help taxpayers and doesn't empower voters --- in fact, it does the exact opposite."

According to a staff report by the Sacramento Public Utility District [PDF], rather than protect the rights of a democratic majority, Proposition 16 would permit a minority of 1/3-plus-one voters to block the will of the majority of the electorate to choose less expensive electricity service from a non-profit public utility.

The Contra Costa Times explained:

PG&E...put this proposition on the ballot...to make it more difficult for cities or counties to form CCAs --- Community Choice Aggregators.

With CCAs, cities or counties buy electricity for their residents, saving money for the consumers because they operate not-for-profit, while traditional utility companies, such as PG&E, continue to own and operate the electrical grid.

PG&E is trying to convince the public to vote yes by framing this proposition as a "taxpayers right" initiative, when its true intent is to benefit themselves by thwarting other municipalities from becoming CCAs!

In the lawsuit, the coalition of public utility companies have argued the title used to gather signatures for the petition --- "The Taxpayers Right to Vote Act" --- was so deceptive as to invalidate the signatures. They have asked "Superior Court Judge Allen H. Sumner to order Secretary of State Debra Bowen to disqualify the initiative from the ballot."

According to Cosimo Garvin of NewsReview.com, the true source of the initiative is a reaction by PG&E --- the state's largest private for-profit energy provider --- to a previous effort by the non-profit Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) to expand its less expensive electricity service to areas currently monopolized by PG&E. Although PG&E successfully fended off the effort by pouring millions of dollars into opposing ballot measures that would have permitted the expansion, PG&E's margin of victory in Yolo County was less than one percent.

Garvin's piece reflects that PG&E's concern is not that electricity consumers did not have the right to vote on a choice between public and private energy providers, but that a simple majority could end the PG&E monopoly in a given community --- something which underscores the deception behind both the label and the television ad.

Complaints about the deception are not limited to the title or the body of the ad. The Utilities Reform Network (TURN) notes that while the ad claims to be sponsored by "Californians to Protect Our Right to Vote" and that, in addition to PG&E, "major funding" was provided by "a coalition of taxpayers, environmentalists, renewable energy, business and labor," the "'No on 16' group claims that PG&E is the sole contributor to the 'Yes on 16' campaign."

TURN's Mindy Spatt described the initiative as "the worst kind of special interest ballot proposition...Something that would basically benefit one corporation at the expense of everybody else."

Where Garvin quoted a PG&E spokesperson as complaining about a "government takeover," one of PG&E's current customers posted a comment at another site: "So when do we get to vote on PG&E being our energy provider? I don't recall being given that choice."

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PG&E's deceptive 'Yes on Proposition 16' 30-second ad follows...


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Ernest A. Canning has been an active member of the California state bar since 1977. Mr. Canning has received both undergraduate and graduate degrees in political science as well as a juris doctor. He is also a Vietnam vet (4th Infantry, Central Highlands 1968).