(CN) — On Tuesday while American voters were cementing conservative Republican control over national politics, the nation’s most populous state slid even further left. California voters flexed their progressive muscle and legalized recreational marijuana, strengthened already tough gun laws and OK’d higher taxes for the rich.
A record number of registered Californian voters were asked to weigh in on a cluttered statewide ballot that included dueling death penalty initiatives, mandatory condoms for porn actors, higher tobacco taxes and a major criminal sentencing reform plan pushed by its fourth-term governor.
Along with voting for Democrat Hillary Clinton and electing the first black woman to the U.S. Senate since 1999, Golden State voters approved 12 of 17 statewide propositions.
Voters overwhelmingly passed Gov. Jerry Brown’s contentious measure that loosens determinate sentencing laws and increases the number of inmates eligible for parole. Brown spent millions campaigning for the measure that he promises will reduce California’s skyrocketing prison population and roll back decades-old sentencing laws he helped pass in his first go-round as governor.
While state lawmakers raised the legal smoking age to 21 in May, voters agreed Tuesday to punish smokers with a $2-per-pack tobacco tax in hopes of generating Medi-Cal funding. After failing twice with similar measures, supporters overcame heavy Big Tobacco fundraising and passed Proposition 56. California’s excise tax will rise to $2.87 per pack, ninth highest in the country.
Similar tobacco tax hikes in North Dakota and Colorado were rejected by voters.
An effort to repeal and abolish California’s fractured death penalty law failed, while a competing measure to speed up death penalty appeals is squeaking by with only mail-in ballots left to be counted.
“California voters have spoken loud and clear that they want to keep the death penalty intact. This is the ninth time California voters have voted in favor of keeping the death penalty for the most heinous killers,” Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert said in a statement.
Leslie Hawkins, a public school teacher, voted in favor of abolishing the death penalty, which hasn’t been used in California since 2006.
“I would rather err on the side of caution and not sentence an innocent man to death,” Hawkins said at a Pasadena polling place.
In the aftermath of the terror attack in San Bernardino nearly a year ago, voters agreed to subject gun owners to background checks for ammunition purchases and outlawed magazines holding more than 10 rounds. The comprehensive gun-control package pushed by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom was approved by 62 percent of voters as of Wednesday morning.
Newsom, also a vocal supporter of California’s successful marijuana legalization effort, thanked voters for “blazing a different path.”
“A lot of people thought we were a special kind of crazy to take on the National Rifle Association and the Drug Enforcement Agency in the same election,” Newsom tweeted. “But here’s the thing. Californians don’t back down from the difficult.”
A temporary special income tax on California’s wealthiest residents was extended by voters until 2030. The tax, which Democratic lawmakers credit with pulling California out of its recession-induced fiscal crisis, helps fund education and Medi-Cal programs.
Despite ardent last-minute campaigning by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a measure that proposed caps on certain prescription drug prices stalled at the polls. Backers, including the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation, claimed Proposition 61 would have prevented drug companies from charging inflated prices to the state’s poorest patients.
Andrew Angeles, 27, agreed that the state should play a role in setting prescription drug prices.
“I would like to see the state involved in more price negotiation with drug companies. It’s a good start,” Angeles said of Proposition 61, which received 46 percent of the vote.
The pharmaceutical industry and the opponents spent nearly $110 million against the initiative.
Voters also nixed another measure financed by AIDS Healthcare Foundation president Michael Weinstein that would have required condoms in adult films.
It was a successful election night for Brown, as a measure he bitterly opposed appears to have been blocked by voters. Brown spent more than $4 million fighting Proposition 53, coined the “Stop Blank Checks” initiative by supporters.
If passed, Proposition 53 would have required statewide voter approval for state megaprojects seeking $2 billion or more in revenue bonds. The proposition could have potentially stalled the state’s bullet train project currently under construction and the $16 billion Delta tunnels water project that Brown has called his “legacy projects.”
Californians approved a measure upholding a state ban on plastic bags and simultaneously denied a companion measure that would have directed the 10-cent bag fee charged by stores to a state-administered environmental program.
“Let stores run their own businesses,” Hawkins, the public school teacher, said.
Voters did want a say in how the Legislature runs its business, however. In an effort to increase transparency in the statehouse, voters OK’d major reforms to how lawmakers debate and decide bills.
Spearheaded by prominent Republican donor Charles Munger Jr., Proposition 54 requires lawmakers to publish bills online and in print at least 72 hours prior to a vote on the bill. Munger and supporters say the initiative will prevent last-minute deals in the Legislature and open bills up to more public scrutiny.
Opponents claim the proposition will throw a wrench into the budget process and actually prevent lawmakers from quickly addressing state emergencies. Voters rejected those fears with 64 percent voting in favor of Proposition 54.
Bilingual education advocates secured a victory as voters approved the expansion of language development or dual-immersion programs in public schools. More than 70 percent of voters approved Proposition 58, which received bipartisan support ahead of Tuesday’s vote.
Proposition 58 aims to benefit the estimated nearly 20 percent of California students who are not native English speakers as well as provide English-speaking students with more opportunities to learn a second language.
Another education initiative that authorizes $9 billion in bonds to modernize and build new schools was approved by Golden State voters on Tuesday. Proposition 51 received 54 percent of the vote, and the borrowed money will be spent on K-12 schools and community colleges.
Finally, voters expressed their displeasure with unlimited campaign donations and the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling. Californians approved the advisory Proposition 59, directing their congressional delegation to pursue a potential constitutional amendment to the high court’s contentious decision greenlighting unlimited corporate campaign donations.
Dozens of congressional Democrats already support or are co-sponsors of resolutions attempting to overturn the decision via constitutional amendment, but the proposals have not yet had a committee hearing.