In a move that threatens to kill Gov. Jerry Brown's pivotal tax-hike initiative, a wealthy California schools advocate backing an alternative measure launched a multimillion-dollar ad campaign Tuesday attacking the governor's proposition.
The TV spots bankrolled by civil rights attorney Molly Munger, the daughter of a billionaire businessman, represents the first significant opposition against Brown's Proposition 30, which would raise taxes on the wealthy and hike sales taxes to stave off another round of cuts to K-12 schools and higher education.
The irony of the attack is that it doesn't come from someone who is anti-tax. Instead, it comes from someone who just likes her tax better.
Brown has spent months pulling together a pro-Proposition 30 coalition that includes labor, educators, celebrities, President Bill Clinton and even some business groups. Still, the measure has been polling just above 50 percent -- which means an aggressive ad campaign against it could easily cause it to fail.
Munger has already spent more than $30 million pushing her measure, Proposition 38, which would provide more funding for education by raising income taxes on nearly everyone. But polls show that measure is headed for defeat, so attacking Proposition 30 could result in an ad war that brings down both education initiatives, experts say.
"It's almost as if Molly Munger was a Cyborg created by a conservative super PAC," said Jack Pitney, a political-science and government professor at Claremont McKenna College. "This is what happens when you have tons of money. Consultants are eager to take your money and not tell you that you're crazy."
During the summer, Brown tried to talk Munger into dropping her measure -- fearing that just this kind of thing would happen. But she refused.
But until now they had warily stayed out of each other's way to focus on spending tens of millions of dollars on their own campaigns, hoping at least one would pass. But polls in recent weeks increasingly showed Brown's measure pulling way ahead of Munger's.
Then, on Monday, when vote-by-mail ballots began shipping out around the state for the Nov. 6 election, Munger created the "Committee to Defend Prop. 38" and deposited $3 million. A day later, she began airing her first anti-Proposition 30 TV ad.
The ad says "the politicians" are misleading people into believing that Proposition 30 would help schools, implying that only politicians like Brown would benefit. It features stick-figure politicians dancing around as money flies in from schools to their arms.
Munger set her sights on Proposition 30 after Brown's team began airing ads last week that "stole" Proposition 38's pro-schools message, said Nathan Ballard, a spokesman for Munger's campaign.
"We had to make the differences between the two measures clear," Ballard said. "The Prop. 30 campaign drew first blood. Our hand was forced."
Yes on 30 campaign spokesman Dan Newman conceded the attack ads could have a "devastating" impact on their effort. And he accused Munger of having more interest in bringing down Brown's measure than in passing her own.
"It's one thing to advocate for a different solution for funding our schools, but nobody who truly supports our schools would spend millions of dollars attacking Prop. 30," Newman said.
Proposition 30 would raise the sales tax by a quarter of a cent and hike the income tax by up to 3 percentage points on those who make more than $250,000 a year. Proposition 38, on the other hand, would raise the income tax by 0.4 to 2.2 percentage points, depending on how much you earn. And that has proved to be a tougher sell to middle-class voters.
Both measures attempt to prevent $6 billion worth of K-12 cuts, which threatens to trim the current school years by as much as three weeks. If they both gain more than 50 percent approval, the one with the most votes wins.
Munger "understands that at this point in the campaign they're in direct competition, and she's behind even though she spent all this money," said Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior fellow at the University of Southern California Price School of Public Policy. With the attack ads, "she may well take both of them down."
Until now, opponents of Proposition 30 had raised just $4.9 million from anti-tax groups. That includes $3.5 million from a political action committee funded largely by Molly Munger's brother, Charles Munger Jr., a Stanford physicist and conservative who has not taken a position on Proposition 38.
Proposition 30 backers are now calling the Mungers "California's Koch brothers," after the billionaire oil tycoons that have spent huge sums to sweep Republicans into office around the country.
Still, the Yes on 30 campaign is hardly poor itself. It's tapped teachers, employee unions and even celebrities like Steven Spielberg and Barbra Streisand to raise more than $26 million.
Ballard said Tuesday that Molly Munger was unavailable for comment. But he rejected the notion that she was going negative, saying the new ads "gently make the point" that only Proposition 38 will help schools.
"This is really about schools, our kids," Ballard said. "There's no reason to get personal."
Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at twitter.com/rosenberg17.