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There’s no doubt that Proposition 16 on California’s June Primary ballot is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and with millions at its disposal to buy the deceptive yarn combined with state law forbidding public utilities from responding to the attack, Pacific Gas and Electric has frustrated consumer rights advocates who are calling its effort a shameful abuse of the state’s initiative process.

While political deception is afoot in the ad claims of the prop 16 campaign from the amount it says is a state deficit to the assertion that prop 16 would effectively resolve it, political experts defend PG&E’s ‘effort to get an advantage over its competition’ as, if an ugly use, not an abuse, of California’s century-old attempt at direct democracy.

“I don’t look at what they’re doing as an abuse of the initiative process, its a use of it,” said Fred Silva, senior fiscal policy advisor for California Forward, a not-for-profit organization whose goal is to contribute to improving the quality of life for all Californians by creating more responsive, representative and cost-effective government. “This is pretty standard if you look at the list of initiatives.”

PG&E is spending more than $35 million dollars, compared to its grass roots opposition of $31 thousand (public utilities like Sacramento Municipal Utility District released a report about the effects of prop 16, but as a public entity cannot respond to PG&E’s campaign), to qualify and present to voters Proposition 16, which would effectively limit the energy company’s competition and maintain its monopolies against public energy providers by imposing a nearly unattainable two-thirds ‘supermajority’ vote requirement on any effort by the public utilities to expand services or service area.

The initiative’s campaign focuses on legitimate voter concern about the state’s budget deficit – an essentially unrelated issue – to pass an initiative which would ensure that public utilities could not offer future energy rate relief by competing within PG&E markets, and possibly more.  But the political wizardry of offering voters their ‘wolf’ initiative wrapped in $35 million dollars of sheep’s clothing – is frustrating to those who believe voters are done a disservice when asked to make decisions based on such financially lopsided campaigns.

California’s initiative process, due to celebrate its 100th year in 2011 has, from the start, been used by competing economic interests “in which particular interests compete among themselves in a public forum,” though Silva says he’s not sure if the use was foreseen when California adopted the process.  “Whenever a particular interest group wants an advantage the initiative process gives them that ability.”

However, according to Silva and the arguments for the process at the time[  ], the initiative process was seen as a way for voters to settle disputes on issues when the legislature and governor cannot, or to overrule a legislature where special interest political influence has corrupted the legislative process, though Silva would not use the corrupt.  “It’s a release valve so the voters have the ability to overcome deadlock when the legislature is stuck or wont settle the problem,” Silva told California Progress Report.

According to Silva, the romantic notion we have of the state’s initiative process, comes from this purpose of empowering the people to step in and settle arguments of their representative government, which it did in 1972 by passing Proposition 20, the Coastal Zone Conservation Act.  “The legislature was unable to solve the problem about managing our coastal resources and they couldn’t get it done.  [Prop. 20] was written and put on the ballot,” creating a commission that met for two years, worked out a plan and was then dissolved. “[Prop. 20] is probably the ideal example of the general romantic notion of the initiative,” said Silva.

While Silva offered no opinion of the content of Prop 16, Thad Kousser, a visiting political science professor at Stanford University, says the 1911 constitutional addition of the initiative process, which also brought Californian’s the ability to recall the governor, injected direct democracy into a representative government that changed California from a Republic to “a hybrid” form of government.  While Silva focused on economic disputes, Kousser noted initiatives have been posed on social issues, some prejudicial, as in the case of Proposition 6 (Briggs Initiative) in 1976, which would have made it illegal for homosexuals to be teachers, Prop. 64 (LaRouche Initiative) in 1986, which called for the reclassification of AIDS/HIV, which opponents believed would have required internment of those infected with the disease, to Prop. 8 last year.  “There are examples of abuse of minorities,” Kousser said. “The process can be abused by certain interest groups,” that makes such direct democracy processes a reasonable concern for minorities, as well as financial underdogs, to fear the initiative process. “The majority of voters vote for what’s in their interests,” Kousser told CPR.

Kousser contends there is at least one example where the majority voted for the benefit of a minority, when voters passed healthcare access for people with disabilities, but such majority will benevolence appears to be rare.

Kousser sees in Prop 16 an initiative meant to benefit PG&E, with a supermajority voter requirement designed to effectively end the energy company’s competition concern.  “Generally what the two thirds requirement does in the legislature is create cross party compromise,” said Kousser, who claimed such bipartisan efforts “are part of the history of California.”  But Kousser said that the parties “are moving further apart, and that makes things harder to pass. Democrats and Republicans are moving further and further apart in Sacramento,” leading to last year’s budget debate where the minority party, the Republicans, forced a no revenue, all cuts budget Kousser said was a first for the golden state. “This is why we are talking about eliminating the two-thirds now.”

In the case of Prop. 16, Kousser said that, while the two-thirds requirement is unrelated to the legislature, its likely intent is to act in a similar obstructionist way. “It makes things harder to pass,” in the local elections required by the initiative.

An overwhelming majority of Californians think not enough state funding is going to their public schools and that K-12 education is the area they most want to protect from spending cuts, according to a recent survey.

“Californians and Education,” an annual survey released by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC), found 62 percent of Californians polled who think their local schools aren’t receiving enough state funding. That’s a 10 percent increase from last year’s survey.

“This year, we are seeing growing concern in what’s happenings with funding and resource issues in California and how this will affect local schools,” said Sonja Petek of the PPIC.

The poll, conducted for the sixth year, interviewed 2,504 Californian adults in English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean. The questions also looked at attitudes about teacher quality and the achievement gap among different groups of students.

The findings indicate that the state is split on the best approach to determine teacher quality and merit-based competition.  While Los Angeles County residents favor using experience as a criterion for assessing additional merit-based pay to teachers, San Francisco Bay Area residents do not.

“I don’t think experience matters,” said Rica Rice, youth employment services program coordinator at the Bernal Heights Neighborhood Center. “Youth will respond better to people who are like them, people who are young and who have had shared experiences with them. Teaching is about ‘the approach,’ not the experience.”

Latinos (57 percent) were more likely than Asians (49 percent) and African Americans (48 percent) to support the idea of paying higher salaries to attract and retain teachers at schools in lower-income communities, even if it costs the state more money.

Money helps, but educational solutions that are too teacher-focused don’t address core problems, explained Frank Warrell, professor and associate dean of student affairs at UC Berkeley.

“Even if a student has a stable teaching force at a low-income school, we haven’t figured out how to account for the lack of educational capital in the household,” said Warrell, who examines variables that are related to academic achievement and that promote resilience, especially in adolescent African Americans.

“Student achievement isn’t just correlated to teacher quality; it’s a combination of engagement in the classroom, intellectual stimulation at home, and the amount of focused effort that kids puts into their schoolwork,” Warrell said.

John Rogers, associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and director of UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access (IDEA), said it was ironic that “at a moment where there is all this public attention around teacher quality, the infrastructure that is supposed to be in place to make better teachers is being eliminated.”

“Districts have cut professional development, academic coaches, assistant professors-all of which supported teacher quality development. We’re not enabling teachers to move along a pathway to provide higher quality instruction,” Rogers said.

The poll also found that public school parents are more likely than last year to say that state budget cuts are greatly affecting their child’s school. Nearly three quarters of African Americans think schools aren’t preparing students for jobs and the workforce, compared to 56 percent of both Asians and Latinos.

The achievement gap remains one of the most persistent concerns among public school parents, up 11 points from last year’s poll, with 63 percent of African Americans and 51 percent of Latinos responding that student achievement is a big problem.

But some education advocates say that raising low student achievement requires more than simply addressing teacher quality or low test scores.

“A lot of our youth are exposed to community violence and all kinds of problems at home. Their parents are struggling, their communities are struggling, and these issues affect their achievement. If your cousin gets shot, it’s hard to focus on your math homework,” said Jodi Tsapis, community outreach worker for Downtown High School in San Francisco.

Dan Aiello reports for the California Progress Report.