Sun, Jul

Don't Sign on The Dotted Line


GELFAND’S WORLD - They're back. We haven't even finished counting the votes from the last election, but the signature gatherers are back at the front door of Vons.

The one I observed had a sign saying, "Stop Higher Gas Prices. Sign here." 

That's interesting -- a ballot initiative to stop higher gas prices? How, precisely, would that be accomplished? Would it impose excess profits taxes on oil companies, or instate price controls at the gas pump? The sorts of people who pay to get these initiatives on the ballot wouldn't usually be in favor of such schemes. 

An aside: Why do I refer to the people who pay to put such items on the ballot? Is it possible to buy your way onto the ballot? The answer: Yes, but only indirectly. The signature gatherers are paid for their efforts, typically by earning a bounty for each signature. You might imagine that they don't have a lot of incentive to tell you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. They aren't supposed to lie blatantly, but the imaginative touch is encouraged by those who hire and pay them. 

Let's consider a state law and a proposed ballot initiative intended to negate that law. 

A few years ago, people interested in what is colloquially referred to as "environmental justice" began to point out that oil drilling by wealthy oil companies tends to cluster more in the poorer and lower income neighborhoods. There are actually a lot of oil wells right here in Los Angeles, but you don't see a lot of them in Bel Aire or Beverlywood. They tend to give off vapors from the petroleum that is collected. Crude oil is called "crude" for a reason, since it contains a witches brew of all manner of substances including those volatile organic compounds you have heard about. There has been a lot of talk here in Los Angeles about the active wells. 

A while back, the state passed a law forbidding drilling within 3200 feet of homes, schools, nursing homes, and hospitals. The law was called SB 1137 and was passed with overwhelming margins by both houses of the state legislature. 

So let's imagine that oil drillers and companies who buy oil for their refineries objected to the additional administrative burden inflicted upon them by such a public safety law. It is within their rights under California law to attempt to get a referendum placed on the ballot which would overturn SB 1137. 

Mind you, the passage of such a referendum would potentially endanger the health of children growing up in neighborhoods where such wells would be drilled and would also overturn the protections granted by the current law. For example, SB 1137 requires companies to monitor leaks and install alarms 

So how would such a ballot initiative differ in effect from an attempt to control prices at the pump? 

As you have probably guessed, this is a trick question. The petitions being presented to us, the public, at Vons and other supermarkets -- and sold as your chance to Stop Higher Gas Prices -- is really just a referendum to overturn the public safety measure SB 1137. 

What does the actual petition have to do with higher gas prices? My best guess is that it has about as little to do with the price at the pump as is possible. The crude oil that our refineries use comes from all over, including across the Pacific, some pumped locally from still active wells, and possibly even a little still being pumped in Alaska. The amount of crude oil that would come from a few new wells being drilled in your neighborhoods would be a fairly trivial amount. 

But SB 1137 does put some administrative costs on oil drillers, so they figure that if they can fool the public into overturning that law, it's worth a try. 

Notice that we're talking about the industry that is making a fortune off of us drivers right now with their sky high gasoline prices. But their shills are pretending that your signature will help to control gas prices. 

What a lot of garbage. 

But notice that this is the usual routine when it comes to those ballot initiative petitions. Let's consider the following three questions: How did Prop 26 get on the ballot? How did Prop 27 get on the ballot? How did Prop 30 get on the ballot? 

Every one was designed to put money into the pockets of some special interest. 

The answer is that people walking into supermarkets were sold some line of malarky (interesting word, that) about protecting forests or helping indigenous people, or curing sick children or whatnot. In other words, people were lied to. Sometimes it's only lying by omission. 

But it's lying. And the ballot initiatives, if passed by the voters, would do damage to the state and its economy as often as not. 

So here is my suggestion: Don't sign any of those petitions unless Jack Humphreville tells you to sign, or if I give it my blessing, or if somebody you trust has gone over it and recommends your signature. In the exceptional case where you actually know what the petition would do (recall the District Attorney), you can make up your own mind -- but at least it would be based on knowledge about what the ballot measure would accomplish. 

But pretty much every other ballot initiative -- just don't sign that petition. 

By not signing the petition, you will save yourself the few seconds it would have taken, but more importantly, we can all avoid watching hundreds of television commercials that will be bought to fight off these pernicious initiatives. 


My previous column was about a proposed plan to write and pass a set of ballot initiatives to reform city government. First of all, thanks to those of you who emailed me. Let's see how this progresses. The second point is that -- as I pointed out in the column -- we won't be lying to people about what is in the petitions. Rather, we would use an advertising campaign to tell them in advance exactly what the plan is designed to do.


(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])