LOS ANGELES - In a state where voters are fond of making policy decisions at the ballot box, Californians were deciding several weighty issues Tuesday, including whether to raise sales and income taxes to help balance the state budget, repeal the death penalty and require labeling on genetically engineered foods.
The ballot carried 10 statewide initiatives and one referendum, which asked voters whether they wanted to keep or repeal state Senate districts drawn by an independent commission.
Voters easily approved a proposal to increase penalties for people convicted of human trafficking and require sex offenders to provide Internet IDs to law enforcement.
Among the most watched is Gov. Jerry Brown's top priority of the year, Proposition 30. Given the top spot of all ballot initiatives, it asked voters to raise income taxes on those making more than $250,000 a year and sales taxes on everyone to help balance the state budget and avoid about $6 billion in cuts, mostly to schools.
The spending cuts are already built into this year's state budget, and without the taxes some schools could shorten the school year by as many as three weeks.
Early returns showed voters were split on Brown's Proposition 30.
The Democratic governor spent the final two weeks trying to remind voters of the choice, and Democrats toted his Welsh corgi, Sutter, around the state trying to boost enthusiasm. Recent public opinion polls showed the initiative falling below the 50 percent threshold needed for passage, but Brown's supporters were focused on the 14 percent of likely voters who were undecided. They believed a few hundred thousand votes could push it over the top.
Brown faced competition from a rival proposal to broadly raise income taxes and send the money directly to public school districts. That initiative, Proposition 38, was funded by wealthy civil rights attorney Molly Munger, who topped all donors for the ballot measures, giving $44 million to her campaign.
Early returns showed Munger's initiative trailing.
In all, the campaigns for and against the initiatives raised a whopping $372 million, according to MapLight, a nonpartisan research group that tracks political spending.
A hedge fund billionaire financed the campaign for a third tax question, which would repeal a loophole pushed by Republicans in the Legislature in 2009 that allows out-of-state companies to set their own tax rate and put California-based companies at a disadvantage. The $1 billion a year to be raised if voters approve Proposition 39 would be split for the first five years between the state general fund and energy efficiency improvements for public buildings. After five years, all the revenue would be directed to the state general fund.
Unions and other Democratic interests have spent at least $75 million in an attempt to defeat Proposition 32, an initiative aimed at thwarting the political influence of unions. Corporate interests and wealthy Republicans have spent as much as $60 million in favor of the initiative, with some of that money also going into the effort to defeat Brown's tax initiative.
The anti-union initiative follows conflicts in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and elsewhere where Republican efforts to weaken organized labor have produced protests and political tumult.
After a contentious last-minute legal fight that went to the state Supreme Court, it was revealed Monday that an $11 million donation to a group backing the anti-union initiative and opposing Brown's tax plan came from two groups that have spent millions on conservative causes nationwide. The Arizona nonprofit that funneled the money into California declined to reveal the original source of the contribution, however.
Voters also were deciding on a proposal to abolish the state's death penalty, which would convert the sentences of the 726 inmates on California's death row to life in prison without the possibility of parole, and a plan to revise California's Three Strikes law to ensure that a final crime must be serious for felons to qualify.
The three-strikes initiative was leading in early returns, while the proposal to repeal the death penalty was trailing.
Another contentious initiative that would require most genetically engineered food and produce sold in supermarkets and other outlets to be labeled was also trailing in early returns Tuesday. The GMO foods would be barred from calling themselves "natural" on their labels.
Other statewide propositions include revisions to the state budget process that would have lawmakers draft two-year spending plans, an attempt by an insurance magnate to give auto insurance companies more leeway in setting their rates and a proposal to raise the penalties for perpetrators of human trafficking.