A quick guide to ballot measures

It's time again for some head-scratching and eye-glazing.

There are five propositions on Tuesday's state ballot. And they run the gamut from a no-brainer to some efforts at Sacramento reform to a special-interest scam.

Here's my voters' guide, untainted -- unlike those slick campaign mailers -- by payoffs from politicians and predators.

Taking the measures in numerical order:

Proposition 13 is only a distant, calm cousin of its namesake, the revolutionary property tax-cutter born 32 years ago.

This measure would allow earthquake retrofitting of all types of buildings without their owners ultimately being assessed higher property taxes because of the improvements. The structures would be reassessed only when sold.

This would create jobs and could save lives. What's not to like?

Proposition 14 would significantly change state elections by creating an open, more voter-friendly primary, called a "top-two." There would be only one ballot, open to all candidates and voters. The top two vote-getters, regardless of party, would advance to the general election, similar to the way local officials are elected in California. No party primaries. No party nominations. But candidates could list their party affiliations.

The goal is to force candidates to appeal to a wider range of voters than just the ideologues in their own party. Hopefully some pragmatic moderates would be elected, particularly to the Legislature, which is now polarized by partisanship. At the least, primary voters would be given a wider selection of candidates.

Power would be taken from the party pooh-bahs and given to the public. That's one reason they fear it.

Politicians also complain that in some heavily Democratic or Republican districts, they might be required to run against a fellow party member in November, meaning real competition. That may be inconvenient for them. But it's a better deal for voters, providing them with a more meaningful choice of candidates.

The only reason to vote "no" on Proposition 14 is if you're satisfied with what has been happening in Sacramento. If you'd like to shake things up and try something different, vote "yes."

Proposition 15 would create a pilot program for public financing of state campaigns. It would apply only to candidates for secretary of state and just for the 2014 and 2018 elections.

The financing really wouldn't be public. It would be unfair -- tapping only lobbyists, their firms and the interests they represent.

They're easy targets.

But the most important element of this measure is not the pilot project. It's repeal of the law that bans public financing of state candidates. The ban also applies to counties and most cities.

This measure would authorize the Legislature and the governor to enact public financing without further voter approval. Same with boards of supervisors and city councils.

The only way to rid the Capitol of special-interest dominance is for the public to finance the politicians' campaigns. When the public doesn't buy the politicians, the interests do.

This measure is a small, hesitant step along a path worth following.

Proposition 16 is a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. scam. Pure and simple.

Its purpose is to lock PG&E customers into the utility's grasp without any realistic opportunity of ever escaping to an electricity provider with cheaper rates. The San Francisco-based utility is trying to assure itself a monopoly on current Northern and Central California ratepayers.

This measure erects a practically impenetrable barrier for local governments or public utilities to start up or expand electric service, or contract with a provider other than a private utility.

It does this by requiring a two-thirds vote of the electorate.

PG&E's advertising is disingenuous because the utility equates its proposed two-thirds requirement with what's needed for most local tax increases.

But Proposition 16 has nothing to do with taxes. We're talking about ratepayers who most likely are being gouged for more money than they'd be paying a public utility for the same or better service.

Anyway, people already have the right to vote whether they want to be served by a public utility. But that's not good enough for PG&E, because only a majority vote currently is required for approval.

This proposition would apply to the customers of any private utility, such as Southern California Edison or San Diego Gas & Electric. But only PG&E is paying the campaign freight, nearly $50 million.

There are many opponents -- public utilities, local governments, irrigation districts, farmers, developers -- but there's very little opposition money. Public entities are prohibited from spending money on political campaigns. And that's why they'd never be able to muster a two- thirds public vote to escape PG&E's clutches.

This insidious measure is the epitome of what ails California's initiative system.

Proposition 17 is another special-interest offering.

The bankroller, Mercury Insurance Group, is trying to change auto insurance law to increase its market share. It wants to steal customers from other insurers by allowing motorists to bring along their continuous- coverage discounts.

Mercury claims most drivers would get reduced premiums.

Opponents contend premiums actually would rise because rates would go up for the previously uninsured.

It's much too complicated for an average voter who isn't in the insurance biz. It's one of those issues best left to elected representatives.

I'm inclined to agree with opponent Harvey Rosenfield, founder of Consumer Watchdog, who says: "When was the last time an insurance company spent $13 million to save you money? The answer is never." In fact, Mercury has spent $14.6 million to promote the measure.

Mark me down as suspicious.

Skelton has covered politics for the Los Angeles Times since 1974.