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Momentum Builds for Early-Childhood Vote in Calif.

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Organizers of a statewide ballot initiative for early-childhood programs in California will learn this week whether they can begin collecting the more than 690,000 signatures they'll need to get the proposal on next November's ballot.

If passed, the proposed Children and Families First Act of 1998 would add 50 cents to the state's 35-cent cigarette tax.

The money raised--a projected $900 million in the first year alone--would be used to pay for an array of services to benefit children from birth to age 5. It would also finance a major educational campaign on the harmful effects of smoking during pregnancy and of second-hand smoke on young children.

In a state where ballot initiatives are an often-used means of supporting or opposing a wide range of causes, it is hard to predict how this plan would be received, organizers and observers say. In the past 20 years, 18 education-related ballot initiatives have qualified to be placed on a California ballot.

Celebrity Sponsor

But what sets this latest initiative apart is the celebrity name behind it. Actor and director Rob Reiner, who has devoted the past year to early-childhood issues, is the chairman of the campaign.

"He's not without influence," said Mike Roos, a former state senator who is serving as campaign manager. "Everyone answers his phone call."

Mr. Reiner, who lately has been spending more time with governors and members of Congress than on Hollywood movie sets, is also the chairman of "I Am Your Child," a nationwide public-engagement effort focusing on the importance of early-childhood development. ("Awareness Campaign Puts Spotlight On Importance of Ages 0-3," April 23, 1997.)

If the state's attorney general gives them the green light, Mr. Reiner and his fellow organizers will have until next April 16 to collect the 693,230 signatures they need. Mr. Roos hopes to exceed the goal by at least 10 percent.

Mr. Reiner's plan is not the only ballot-initiative campaign in California to target tobacco as a source of revenue.

Organizers of an effort to keep schools open after their regular hours for children in kindergarten through 6th grade have roughly half of the 433,269 signatures they need to get their initiative on the June ballot. But they have decided to wait and focus on qualifying in 2000. They need fewer signatures because their proposal would not amend the state constitution as the Children and Families First measure would.

The after-school plan, which would also raise cigarette taxes by 50 cents, calls for giving certified teachers overtime pay to run enrichment programs for students and hiring college students to work as tutors.

Schools would be able to choose whether to participate in the program, which would "keep kids off the street and keep their minds working," said Tyrone Vahedi, the author of the initiative. Mr. Vahedi is also the founder and director of Children Rights 2000, a California-based political-action group.

Mr. Reiner's early-childhood plan would put 80 percent of the new revenue under the authority of local commissions appointed by county boards of supervisors. Each commission would be required to identify early-childhood-education priorities and adopt a strategic plan. In addition, some priorities would be set at the state level. For example, if the Children and Families First plan passed, 3 percent of the proceeds would be used for the education and training of child-care providers.

Some revenue would also be used, if needed, to reimburse the funds from Proposition 99, another anti-smoking effort passed in 1988, which added 10 cents to the state cigarette tax. Those funds are put into a breast cancer fund for research and education.

Mr. Roos, who serves as the president of the Los Angeles Educational Alliance for Restructuring Now, or learn, a school reform program, also sees the Children and Families First Initiative as another way to involve the state in the campaign against tobacco use and "make a quick dent in the increase in juvenile smoking."

Expensive Avenue

California was not among the 40 states to reach a proposed settlement with the nation's leading cigarette manufacturers. Under the deal, which must be approved by Congress, the companies have agreed to spend $500 million for an anti-smoking education campaign aimed at young people and adults. ("Experts Question Plausibility of Pact's Aim To Curb Youth Smoking," July 9, 1997.)

Using a citizen ballot initiative to gain funding for early-childhood programs is a "costly and labor-intensive" process, according to "Financing Child Care in the United States," a report released earlier this year by two foundations.

Mr. Roos said it will cost roughly $1 million to get the signatures his group needs.

But the report, which examines various methods being used to pay for child-care programs, also says that ballot initiatives can be "an excellent way of organizing the citizenry around children's issues."

Margaret Brodkin, the executive director of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth in San Francisco, can attest to that. In 1991, Coleman Advocates, a nonprofit organization, led a successful campaign to pass Proposition J, a 10-year property-tax hike that raises about $13 million a year in San Francisco for child care, health and social services, youth employment, and recreation programs.

Ballot initiatives "are a fabulous way to go, because the electorate is much more willing to fund kids than the elected officials are," Ms. Brodkin said. "But we didn't have a funded opposition."

The California early-childhood initiative is a "worthy cause," said Thomas Lauria, a spokesman for the Washington-based Tobacco Institute, an association of tobacco-product manufacturers. But, he added, its costs should be spread across more people. "You can only go to the well of smokers so many times before you get strong resistance and diminishing funds."

Louise Stoney, an early-childhood policy specialist and consultant in Albany, N.Y., who was one of the authors of the child-care-financing report, added that the public is likely to see more approaches similar to the one in California, which calls for comprehensive services to children, but doesn't seek to replace existing programs with a new, top-down delivery system.

Mr. Roos said he is hoping that Mr. Reiner's name recognition will make the public more receptive to the idea of increasing spending on programs for babies and young children.

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