By Michael Hiltzik /Los Angeles Times / June 12, 2010
We may finally have discovered a remedy for corporate executives with more greed than brains: Let them invest corporate funds by the millions in California ballot initiatives, then vote the things down.
Isn’t that the lesson of Tuesday’s balloting on Propositions 16 and 17, those majestically cynical initiatives sponsored by Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and Mercury Insurance Group?
To recap for the 82% of eligible voters statewide who didn’t bother to vote last week, Proposition 16 was an initiative concocted by PG&E, the state’s biggest private utility, to hamstring the public power agencies that are its chief competitors — pretty much its only competitors. Of the $46 million in cash contributions raised to pass the initiative, $46 million, or 100%, came from PG&E.
Proposition 17 was an initiative concocted by Mercury to undermine the insurance consumer protection system put into place by Proposition 103 of 1988. Of the $13.56 million in cash raised to promote Prop. 17, $13.5 million came from Mercury, whose founder and chairman, George Joseph, has turned the punching of holes in Prop. 103 into a personal obsession. That spending may make Mercury a cheapskate by PG&E standards, but by any rational standard of democratic process, the scale of it was obscene.
Yet these initiatives went down in defeat by almost identical margins, losing about 52%-48%.
[Editor: both measures passed in San Diego County.]
That doesn’t speak well of the management prowess of the executives in charge. PG&E Chairman Peter Darbee walked his company down a $46-million plank to secure it nothing but a permanent place in the corporate citizenship hall of shame. He collected $10.6 million in compensation last year.
Do the PG&E directors really believe that the outcome of Tuesday’s vote is the sort of performance they’ve so lavishly paid Darbee to achieve? If they do, I have a follow-up question: What makes them qualified to serve on a corporate board?
Considering that the U.S. Supreme Court has given the green light to almost limitless political spending by corporate interests, it’s worth pondering how the initiatives lost, the better to deal with the oil slick of electoral cash sure to be heading our way on the next tide.
The most striking statistic that emerges from Tuesday’s results, as my colleagues Marc Lifsher and Dianne Klein have observed, is the margin by which Proposition 16 got beaten within PG&E’s service area in Northern and Central California — a “no” vote of more than 60% in much of the region.
The measure lost by narrower margins in many Southern California counties, where there wasn’t enough familiarity with PG&E to breed that much contempt.
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