Dec. 24 2013 05:04 PM

A rundown of proposed ballot measures you might be harangued about in 2014

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Illustration by Lindsey Voltoline

To qualify dozens of statewide ballot initiatives for November's election, signature gatherers have already started hitting the streets, requesting autographs in shopping malls and chatting up registered voters in front of groceries stores.

It's not always easy to understand those petitions, especially when juggling several shopping bags and a cranky baby or running to another appointment. San Diegans recently witnessed a well-financed and successful signature drive characterized by allegations of hyperbole and deceit. In light of this, we've put together a primer on some of the most significant petition drives voters might come across going into the new year.

Remember, signature gatherers aren't allowed to lie to voters, but they are allowed to express their opinions. If they believe that legalizing cannabis will cause Jesus to blast lightning bolts down from the sky, they can say as much. It's voters' job to understand what they're signing.

The ground rules are fairly simple: With a check for $200, any person can submit a request letter with the text for a proposed initiative to the state Attorney General's office. Officials name the proposal and give supporters 180 days to gather enough signatures to qualify it for the ballot. For constitutional amendments, petitioners must gather signatures equal to 8 percent of the total votes cast in the last gubernatorial election, which is 807,615. For a referendum, it's 5 percent, or 504,760. Here's our rundown:


Abortion

There are several anti-abortion petitions swirling around, two of which are referendums to rollback recently enacted laws that increase access to abortion services. The pro-choice legislation came in stark contrast to a recent flurry of anti-abortion laws in other states. At least a few residents think California needs to join the herd, and one of them is San Diego Reader editor and publisher Jim Holman. During the past decade, Holman has sponsored multiple failed initiatives to require parental notification for minors seeking abortions.

Parental Notification and Waiting Period for Females Under 18: Supporters have until April 14 to gather signatures for a ballot initiative that would prohibit abortions for unemancipated minors until two days after a parent or legal guardian is notified in writing. The initiative provides exceptions for medical emergencies, parental waivers and documented parental abuse. It would also require medical professionals to report specific abortion information to the state. This one appears to involve Holman again; the phone number listed for its treasurer, Fred Clark, is the Reader's main office number.

Constitutional Definition of a Person. Fertilized Human Eggs: Supporters have until April 21 to gather signatures for this initiative that would redefine "person" to include all fertilized human eggs, extending constitutional protections of due process and equal protection to zygotes, embryos and fetuses.

Referendum to Overturn Law Allowing Specified Licensed Medical Professionals to Perform Early Abortion Procedures: Assemblymember Toni Atkins, a San Diego Democrat, successfully carried AB 154, which added nurse practitioners, certified nurse-midwives and physician assistants with special training to the list of medical professionals allowed to perform abortions by aspiration. The procedure entails suctioning the contents of a uterus and is the most common form of first-trimester abortion. Supporters have until Jan. 7 to gather signatures for a measure that would repeal Atkins' law.

Referendum to Reimpose Different Standards on Clinics Providing Abortion Services than on Other Primary Care Clinics: Assemblymember Richard Pan, a Sacramento Democrat, successfully carried AB 980, which strips away any section of the California Building Standards Code that holds abortion clinics to different rules than primary-care clinics. Supporters also have until Jan. 7 to gather signatures for this measure to wipe Pan's law off the books.


Marijuana

It's been almost four years since California came close to legalizing marijuana. Since then, Washington and Colorado made history, approving ballot measures that allow recreational use of weed. A pioneer in medical-marijuana law, California's been schizophrenic when it comes to legalization. A well-entrenched community of growers and dispensary owners continues to see recreational weed as a threat to their profits. However, that's not stopping the legalize-it crowd, who argue that the injustice of incarceration on marijuana charges outweighs all other concerns. There's already one such ballot initiative cleared for signature gathering and another expected to be approved on Dec. 24.

Marijuana Legalization: Supporters have until Feb. 24 to gather signatures to qualify an initiative that would decriminalize cannabis cultivation, use and distribution. The proposal would require individual case reviews for people currently charged or convicted with nonviolent cannabis-related offenses, including sentence modification, amnesty and immediate release from lockup. 

The proposal would also require the Legislature to adopt laws to license and tax commercial cannabis sales. Doctors could approve or recommend marijuana for patients, regardless of age. It would also set limits on testing for cannabis use for employment or insurance purposes and bar state or local law enforcement from helping to enforce federal marijuana laws. 

The Legislative Analyst's office and Finance Department estimated the initiative would save the state hundreds of millions of dollars annually in law-enforcement costs. They also identified potential tax revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually related to the production and sale of cannabis and industrial hemp.


Hospitals

Health professionals will likely be at the center of some of the biggest and most expensive ballot battles next year. At the top of the list will be a fight over medical-malpractice awards, pitting lawyers against doctors. The Consumer Attorneys of California and others would like to increase the amount of money victims of medical malpractice can sue for. The same ballot proposal would require that physicians take random drug tests. 

A group of doctors and hospitals are preparing to mount a defense, but that's not all they have to worry about. The Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West filed and is awaiting approval on two initiatives aimed at the industry. One would limit what hospitals could charge patients, while the other would cap executive pay at non- profit medical facilities.

Drug and Alcohol Testing of Doctors. Medical Negligence Lawsuits: Supporters have until March 24 to gather signatures for a ballot proposal to require drug and alcohol testing for doctors, as well as reporting of positive tests to the California Medical Board. The proposal would compel the board to suspend a doctor's license during an investigation and discipline any practitioner found to have worked while impaired. Doctors would be legally obligated to report suspected drug or alcohol use by coworkers while on duty.

The proposal would also increase the cap on pain-and-suffering damages in a medical-negligence lawsuit to account for inflation. The limit is currently set at $250,000. The Legislative Analyst's office and Finance Department estimate that this could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars annually in higher medical-malpractice costs.

The Fair Healthcare Pricing Act (official title not yet assigned): Expected to be cleared for signature gathering Jan. 2, this initiative would prohibit hospitals from marking up healthcare costs more than 25 percent of the actual price of providing care.

Charitable Hospital Executive Compensation Act (official title not yet assigned): Also expected to be cleared for signature gathering on Jan. 2, this initiative would prohibit nonprofit hospital executives from receiving more than $450,000 in annual compensation.


Pension reform

These days, the idea that bureaucrat retirement packages are bankrupting the state is regular dinner-table-conversation fodder. During the last year, San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed and four other mayors crafted a ballot proposal that would allow top officials to cut public-employee benefits. Government labor unions attacked the effort, saying voters have little appetite for such cuts— something recent polling suggests may be accurate.

A huge part of the equation is market losses to pension funds during the recent recession. Some argue that without immediate reductions to employee benefits, municipalities will soon be forced to significantly cut social programs. However, others argue the economy is rebounding and so are the investment funds that pay for government pensions.

The Pension Reform 2014 (official title not yet assigned): Expected to be cleared for signature gathering Jan. 3, this initiative would allow cities, counties and other government agencies to negotiate changes to an employee's pension or retirement healthcare benefits. As retirement benefits are accrued incrementally over time, the measure would protect any benefits a government employee has already earned.

So far, there are 19 ballot initiatives cleared for signature gathering, with more than two-dozen additional proposals waiting for titles. Not all of them will make it onto the ballot.


Write to joshuas@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on twitter at @jemersmith.

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