LOS ANGELES – The free-spending role of corporations in California's electoral system has come under fire as the state prepares to vote on two referenda which opponents have condemned as a "hijacking" of democracy.
Whether its a bid to legalize marijuana or ban same-sex marriage, single-issue referenda, known in California as ballot initiatives, are part of the fabric of the state's political scene.
But two ballot measures being presented to voters at Tuesday's June 8 primaries have raised questions about an electoral system which allows corporations to bankroll campaigns with millions of dollars.
The highest profile initiative — Proposition 16 — is backed and financed by Pacific Gas and Electric, the private, for-profit electric company which supplies energy to nearly two thirds of northern California.
Proposition 16 would require any city or county in the state seeking to start its own municipal utility to get approval from two thirds of its voters.
Opponents of the initiative say that if approved it will give PG&E and other existing companies a virtual monopoly, locking out potential public sector rivals in perpetuity.
"I think it's outrageous that a regulated company could decide to write its own business advantage into the state Constitution," John Geesman, a former member of the California Energy Commission, told the Los Angeles Times.
So far PG&E has spent an estimated 46 million dollars on its campaign, blitzing local television, radio and newspapers with hard-hitting ads touting the measure as the "Taxpayers Right to Vote."
Opponents however are hamstrung because the law forbids municipal power providers from spending any money on electioneering. The "No on 16" campaign is staffed exclusively by volunteers and has so far raised only 80,000 dollars.
"The initiative process originated with the idea that ordinary voters could bring forth issues of importance to them and it's pretty much been hijacked by wealthy corporations," said "No on 16" spokeswoman Mindy Spratt.
"We have far more public support, far more endorsements, far more volunteers. But the challenge is getting our message out against a 46 million dollar ad campaign that has blanketed the entire state.
"PG&E has obviously calculated 'If you can buy a Governor's Mansion, you might as well try and buy a part of the constitution.'"
The other ballot measure being decided Tuesday, Proposition 17, is being funded by Mercury Insurance, which has spent more than 15 million dollars on the campaign. Supporters say the measure is designed to allow drivers to keep loyalty discounts even if they switch insurance companies.
Opponents say Proposition 17 will allow insurance companies to raise rates by imposing premium surcharges that are currently illegal.
"When was the last time an insurance company spent millions to save you money?," the "Stop Prop 17" campaign asks on its website.
Experts say that while corporations attempting to influence politics is nothing new, the sums of money being spent by backers of the two California measures in Tuesday's election are unprecedented.
John Matsusaka, a leading authority on ballot initiatives who heads the Initiative And Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California, described the PG&E-financed campaign as "staggering."
"Corporations have been involved in initiatives since the very beginning. It's not new. But the amount of money being spent is," Matsusaka told AFP.
"PG&E has spent something like 45 million dollars now. That's staggering. Huge. That is a completely new thing."
Matsusaka noted however that corporations were not alone in trying to buy influence at the ballot box, where public sector unions and wealthy individuals have often mounted similar campaigns in the past.
"What I do think is of concern though is the imbalance between the two sides," Matsusaka said. "The direct democracy process was set up in the belief that the voters are competent to make choices.
"But in order for them to make choices they need to hear both sides of the argument. What's troubling about this campaign is that only one side of the argument is being heard."
© AFP 2017