Advancing a Free Society

When Californians Took Initiative

Sunday, October 9, 2011

This week marks 100 years since California dramatically reshaped its political landscape – the special election of October 10, 1911, resulting in the Golden State adopting the initiative process, thus giving the voting public a means of enacting laws and constitutional amendments without the help of their elected officials.

In the century since California became the 10th state in the U.S. to engage in such vox populi democracy, a long-running argument persists: are statewide initiatives helping or hurting the political process in California?

The math suggests that Californians, given the opportunity and the privilege, haven’t exactly been drunk with power.

Over the past century in the Golden State, 1,657 initiatives were titled and summarized for circulation (1,638 being direct initiatives). 1,220 of those initiatives – about three in four – failed to qualify for the ballot.

Of the 348 initiatives that did eventually make it to the ballot, only 116 were approved by California voters – a one-in-three success rate.

But consider what a different landscape it is, despite only a majority of those measures passing.

Without the initiative process, there would be no Proposition 13, limiting property taxes (a political earthquake that culminated, two years after its passage, in the Reagan Revolution of 1980), nor a Proposition 140, limiting California’ lawmakers’ stay in office.

Without the initiative process, Californians over the past two decades would have been unable to vent their frustration with a myriad of hot-button policy topics that most state officials preferred to duck – that would include Proposition 187 (illegal immigration), Proposition 209 (racial quotas in public-university admissions), Proposition 227 (bilingual education in California grade schools).

So, moving forward, is it time for California to reconsider the benefit of the ballot?

That seems to hinge on one’s political bent.

Consider, for a moment, the plight of Republicans in California. There is no such animal as a GOP statewide officeholder. Republicans occupy barely one-third of the seats in each of California’s legislative bodies, thus making the party largely irrelevant in majority-rule budget debates – that is, unless higher taxes are on the table; then, a two-thirds majority is required. To the extent that a Democratic governor wants to play ball with the loyal opposition, it’s usually with one thought in mind. You guessed right: raise taxes.

For Republicans, that leaves the initiative process as the only reliably available means of advancing right-of-center ideas in California.

Which is something California Democrats are well aware of.

Which is why, just three days shy of the initiative’s 100th birthday (and on the 8th anniversary of the historical gubernatorial recall election), Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill preventing initiatives from being placed on California’s June 2012 primary ballot (ironically, it was then-Secretary of State Jerry Brown, some 40 years ago, who had no problem with the idea of running initiative slates twice in an election year).

Why Brown’s change of heart? Answer: power politics. In California, conservative ideas fare better in smaller-turnout primaries than they do in general elections with bigger left-of-center turnouts.

2012 is a prime example: the June primary will feature a GOP presidential slate and what should be a competitive U.S. Senate primary. On the Democratic side, barring a surprise decision by Sen. Dianne Feinstein not to seek re-election, there’s little in the way of drama. But come November, President Obama’s on the ballot and Democrats presumably will engage in bigger numbers.

Moreover, before Brown’s intervention, one such conservative idea – a big one – was headed for a showdown in June 2012: weakening Big Labor’s clout by preventing unions from collecting dues for political purposes without a worker’s annual consent. That gets moved to November.

Plus, by shoveling all 2012 initiatives into one November laundry pile, there’s a bonus-added for the left: the more initiatives there are on the ballot, the more sour voters tend to become . . . and the more likely that initiatives will be rejected en masse.

Although this could backfire against liberals when it comes to an idea the left craves – say, altering Prop 13 – in the bigger picture it’s the right being furthered hamstrung that matters more.

Advantage, Democratic status quo.

Political gamesmanship notwithstanding, the October 2011 century mark does provide a convenient milestone for discussing legitimate ways in altering California’s initiative process for the better.

Here are a few ideas to kick around:

  1. Qualifying. In California, it takes a number of signatures equal to 5% of the vote in the previous gubernatorial election to qualify an initiative for the ballot. At present, that’s 505,760 signatures for statutes; 807,615 signatures for constitutional amendments. That may sound formidable, but it’s not given that (a) technology makes it easier to find voters and (b) companies exist solely for this purpose. Why not raise the threshold to a higher percentage of the previous turnout? And, at the same time, less the time allotted for signature-gathering. At present, proponents have 150 days from the time an initiative’s official summary is issued to gather the requisite signatures. Should it be a 120- or 100-day window instead?
  2. Threshold. Ballot measures are approved by majority votes regardless of that election’s turnout. For initiatives involving taxation or impacting the state’s budget, why not raise the bar and make it a 55% supermajority required for passage (as is the case for local school bonds)? The same goes for the state’s borrowing through long-term bonds, so as to put the brakes on the state’scredit-card spending. Such reform would make it tougher for Californians to engage in so-called “ballot-box budgeting” that complicates fiscal drawdowns in Sacramento. And there’s always the nuclear option: trying a reform akin to Arizona’s failedProposition 105, which required a majority of all registered voters – not just voters casting ballots – to approve a ballot measure.
  3. Legislative Say-So. Of the 24 states with an initiative process, California’s the only one that doesn’t allow its state legislature toundo the public’s handiwork. Common sense suggests that further empowering California’s State Legislature is a lot like giving a bottle of lighter fluid to juvenile delinquents already playing with matches. Still, why not strike a balance by giving legislators the public-override option, but only through two-thirds votes in both chambers (I’m gambling that nonpartisan redistricting one day will deliver a State Legislature more in sync with public sentiment than the current gang of 120 members in Sacramento).
  4. Authorship. A common criticism of the initiative process is its transformation from special-interest watchdog to devil’s political of crass politics – witness Gov. Brown’s “180” on the primary ballot. One of the worst offenders is the California Attorney General’s Office. It’s up to the AG to give each ballot measure a title and description. Unfortunately, California’s attorney generals have a history of interjecting partisanship into the debate. Brown, for example, tinkered with Propositions 23 and 17 (respectively, greenhouse gas emissions and auto insurance). And there’s this gem from former California AG Bill Lockyer, a lifelong Democratic warhorse who gave 2000’s Proposition 38 the following death-sentence title: “School Vouchers – State-Funded Private and Religious Education”. At a minimum, I’d strip California’s Attorney General of his/her editorial privilege and give it to a less partisan entity.
  5. Spending Limits? In California’s 2010 gubernatorial contest, the maximum-allowed contribution was $25,900 for individuals and small-contributor committees. Why not apply the same standard to initiatives? California’s Center for Government Studies, for example, thinks a $100,000 limit should be enacted. Personally, I’m not in favor if this concept. Still, it might open the door to updating other campaign finance laws.