Will Big Tobacco Torpedo the Special Election?
By Eric Wooten
Whether the special election is in June or November, this much is clear: given the dire consequences of an “all cuts budget,” this is the most important election facing California Democrats since Arnold Schwarzenegger’s relentless attack on working families in 2005.
Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Republican Party spent an astounding $62 million on that disastrous 2005 special election, which covered four initiatives.
But you ask, “What does this have to do with this election?”
Because another tobacco tax will appear on the special election ballot and Big Tobacco will spend mountains of money that to defeat it. Their efforts could “spill over,” jeopardizing the extension of the taxes we need to prevent billions of dollars in cuts to education, healthcare and other essential state programs.
Just look at the television ads for a preview of the arguments Big Tobacco is likely to rerun this time around:
1) Existing tax dollars are subject to waste, fraud and abuse
2) The tax is unfair
3) The measure is flawed
Do these sound familiar? That’s because they are among the most common and effective attacks leveled against any tax measure.
If the opponents of the tax extensions do not spend a single penny, voters will still be seeing tens of millions of dollars in television ads making effective arguments against tax measures in general.
And don’t fool yourself – getting Californians to approve extending these taxes is going to be a tough fight, even without Big Tobacco mucking things up. Recent polling shows public support of extending these taxes hovering between 46% and 61%. Many tax measures have had better numbers at this stage, only to lose at the ballot. The Field Poll initially showed that Proposition 86 was leading among voters 2-to-1. That didn’t end so well.
This is going to be a close race, probably decided by less than five points. At the same time, Big Tobacco is fighting a ballot measure that could also be decided by a close margin (Proposition 86 was decided by four points).
Besides spending tens of millions of dollars on TV ads, how will Big Tobacco try and defeat their newest tax threat? If I were them, I would work hard turning-out the most rabid anti-tax voters for this special election. That’s going to have a measurable affect on any other revenue measures unfortunate enough to share the same ballot.
If that wasn’t enough, there is another problem. Because we are heading towards a special election in record time, it is going to be tough for the proponents of the budget-saving tax extensions to raise adequate campaign funds, regardless of the negative impacts of the tobacco tax.
So, if the tobacco tax is going to jeopardize the special election, what can we do about it?
Well, it might be time to make a deal with The Devil and approach tobacco companies about defeating this measure without a large, messy and expensive fight. We don’t need the future of California to become a collateral damage victim of Big Tobacco’s media blitzkrieg.
I know that sounds sacrilegious to many of you, but these are unusual circumstances.
By ensuring that good Democratic groups come out to oppose this measure, we might be able to build coalition of universal consensus that this initiative is a bad idea. This would greatly reduce the incentive for Big Tobacco to blindly carpet bomb California voters with anti-tax propaganda.
In addition, someone smarter than me suggested that should Big Tobacco defeat the tax extensions along with the cigarette tax, Democrats would likely want to seek additional revenues (and perhaps revenge). That would set the stage for another expensive tobacco tax campaign. This could be an important bargaining chip in persuading Big Tobacco to be more targeted in their attacks.
I have no love for Big Tobacco (my grandmother died of cancer after a lifetime of smoking). I also generally support tax increases for good causes.
But as a Democrat, I can’t begin to imagine what would happen to California if we can’t preserve our existing revenue to offset billions of dollars in more cuts to state budget. I’m also uncomfortable establishing a new government program at the same time we are laying-off teachers and cutting healthcare to millions of Californians.
If someone has focus groups and polling showing that the tobacco tax doesn’t jeopardize the tax extensions, please share it and I will gladly campaign for this latest tobacco tax.
Otherwise, I recommend we hold our collective noses and work with Big Tobacco to defeat this measure so we can prevent a ballot-wide bloodbath.
Eric Wooten is a Democratic political consultant and owner of Capitol Coast Consulting. He still has scars from several ballot fights and no, he does not smoke.