My experience as a local elected official made me all-too-familiar with one of the most considerable dangers in public policy: The seemingly well-intentioned but poorly-devised idea that, when executed, spawns too many unintended consequences to ever serve a practical good.
California voters have an opportunity to avoid this hazard on June 5 by voting no on Prop. 29, which its advocates claim will generate more than $730 million per year for cancer research, by slapping an additional $1 tax on every pack of cigarettes sold in the state.
There is no question that California is in desperate need of new sources of revenue. The perpetual state budget crisis has been a burden on local governments for a generation, and it has been only a short time since the latest ill-considered money grab — the unceremonious dissolution of redevelopment agencies statewide, snatching millions of irreplaceable dollars from municipal coffers — again brought local governments to the brink of fiscal ruin.
Still, historically, voters have demonstrated limited tolerance for the imposition of new taxes in times of economic distress — no matter who among them would actually pay them. In that light, the real task before the California electorate is implementing sensible fiscal policies that would help communities confront the critical issues facing them every day: stubborn unemployment, under-equipped public schools, an expanding healthcare crisis, crumbling infrastructure and a growing need for more public safety resources.
By any measure, Prop. 29 fails to meet that standard. Whatever benevolent intent is contained in the goal of boosting cancer research, the bureaucratic fine print in this ballot measure is almost certain to outweigh it. Not only is there no explicit requirement that these funds actually be spent in California, but decisions on how they are allocated would rest solely with a nine-member board of political appointees. With virtually no oversight or mandate to spend these hundreds of millions on California’s most urgent needs, the risk of mismanagement is too great at a time when this state has no choice but to account for how every dime of taxpayer money is spent.
One of the key components of this ballot initiative is a heartstring-tugging provision that would provide funds for tobacco prevention to the state Department of Education.
Outside of the plain mockery of what this allocation would actually represent (as spelled out in the proposed law, the funds would represent only one-fifth of 20% of the funds generated), the most troublesome aspect is how the new law would actually rob public education in the state of funds and resources that are desperately needed in the classroom. At a time when overworked teachers — in overcrowded classrooms — are struggling mightily to impart the basics to their students, this small disbursement would almost certainly come with an outsize requirement to add new, unnecessary elements to the curriculum.
The truth is that while they are falling perilously behind in core subjects, adolescents in this state are anything but lacking in opportunities — educationally, culturally and personally — to learn that smoking can lead to a nicotine addiction with lifetime consequences for their personal health. Though the well-heeled forces behind Prop. 29 claim (with no proof) that it will stop 200,000 children from using tobacco, this attempt to generate a windfall for narrow interest groups does nothing to address the real needs of students in California.
When you enter your polling place next Tuesday, you are not being asked whether you’d like to see a cure for cancer. Rather, before punching the ballot, the question we should all ask ourselves is this: However they are generated, aren’t there better and more prudent uses for our tax dollars?
Roy Grimes is Past President of both the Sacramento City and the Sacramento County School Boards; a former Classroom Teacher, and former member of the California State PTA and Sacramento Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce Boards of Directors.