The Riggs Report: Death and taxes on the ballot

​November 17, 2016

CA voters surprise some with proposition approvals, rejections

Benjamin Franklin is famously quoted as saying, “Nothing is certain except death and taxes.”

California voters underscored that saying in last week’s election, turning down another effort to repeal the death penalty while also approving a higher tobacco tax and an extension of higher income taxes for the state’s wealthiest residents.

But with the dust settling on the outcome of a ballot crammed with the most propositions in 16 years, the overall results defy an easy explanation or road map of where the state may be heading.

Voters sent a strong law and order message, for example, in rejecting Proposition 62, which called for abolishing capital punishment and commuting the sentences of all 741 prisoners on San Quentin’s death row to life imprisonment—53.7 percent said no and 46.3 percent said yes. Voters rejected a similar measure in 2012.

But voters were much more divided on a competing measure, Prop 66. Sponsored by crime victims and law enforcement groups, it is designed to streamline the lengthy appeals process and speed up the process by which death penalty cases are handled.

California has not held an execution in almost 11 years, when Clarence Ray Allen was put to death for his role in masterminding a triple murder at a Fresno market. Those murders took place in 1980—26 years earlier.

Critics say the extensive delay in such cases is unfair to victims and their families. But as of mid-week, California’s secretary of state still had not certified the outcome of Prop 66. It was leading, but only by a razor-thin margin of less than 200,000 votes.

Voters took a much more lenient approach to a different crime and punishment issue: Prop 57. Promoted by Gov. Jerry Brown, it reforms the law to allow early parole for certain categories of non-violent felons. Despite opposition from district attorneys and other law enforcement figures, Prop 57 passed by an overwhelming 63.7 percent.

Californians also passed a couple of statewide tax measures, but no one—especially the new Democratic supermajority in the state Assembly—should interpret that as a sudden turn toward acceptance of higher taxes.

Prop 55, which passed with 62.4 percent, continues a higher income tax rate, that was first approved in 2012, on those earning greater than $250,000 a year. Prop 56, approved with 63.5 percent of the vote, imposes a $2 a pack tax increase on cigarettes.

The important distinction here is that Prop 55 and Prop 56 only affect a fraction of the voting public. Higher taxes go down much easier when voters know they’re not going to be personally affected.