Those seeking reasons for California’s dysfunctional government could probably identify a series of issues that compound the felony. These include term limits, gerrymandered electoral districts, Proposition 13, and the supermajority required to raise taxes or pass a state budget. To this list should be added California’s initiative process.
California’s initiative process was adopted in October 1911 in an effort to thwart the Southern Pacific Railroad, which had a stranglehold on the Legislature, leading to rampant corruption in Sacramento. With the help of those reformers pushing the initiative, reform-minded gubernatorial candidate Hiram Johnson was elected and joined a new progressive majority in the Legislature in making the most sweeping governmental changes ever seen in California.
Early on, the initiative process was progressive and was utilized, among other things, to abolish the poll tax and underwrite the construction of the first campuses for the University of California. Its value could also be seen in a series of 1938 initiatives sponsored by then Alameda County District Attorney Earl Warren, which revamped the state’s law enforcement and criminal justice systems. Warren went on to become California’s attorney general, governor and finally chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The initiative process has also been used in regressive ways. These include the 1964 repeal of the state’s first ever fair housing act, the Rumford Fair Housing Act, and the banning of cable television. In 1994, the voters approved Proposition 187, which prohibited the state from providing any services (educational, health or otherwise) to those who couldn’t prove legitimate U.S. residency. This measure was subsequently overturned as unconstitutional by the courts. Most recently, voters approved the highly contentious Proposition 8, which made gay marriage unlawful in California.
There are numerous problems with the initiative process that make it dysfunctional and in need of fundamental change. In the first place, the original concept was to provide voters the opportunity to have the final say when elected officials were either unwilling or unable to act. This has, on occasion, provided our elected representatives the opportunity to abrogate their responsibilities by passing the buck to the voters on tough and complex issues such as the most recently defeated budget-balancing ballot measures.
Then there’s the issue of signature gathering. Initially, this process was a grassroots volunteer effort undertaken by committed citizens. How far we’ve come from those days! Today, individuals or special interest groups with an ax to grind and a few million dollars to spend can hire professional signature gatherers and place virtually anything on the statewide ballot. This needs to change. We should return to the original purpose of so-called citizen democracy and demand that no one can get paid to solicit signatures for ballot measures.
More John Hancocks
Secondly, we need to increase the number of signatures required to qualify an initiative for the ballot. Currently, an initiative qualifies if it has 8 percent of the number of votes cast in the previous gubernatorial election. This figure has been the same since 1911. It’s time to make that percentage at least 10 percent. Making the above changes will limit the ability of single-issue special interests to fashion public policy in their own image.
Finally, there’s the important and often unrecognized issue of cost. Many of the initiatives or propositions that have been adopted fail to provide funding to support their mandates. A good example would be Proposition 49, which was adopted by California voters in 2002. This was now-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s entry into statewide politics. The proposition committed California to providing free before- and after-school programs for all California school children. Since it became effective in 2004, it has cost the state more than $455 million a year, or more than $1.8 billion in total. The goal of the proposition was worthy, but it came without an income source to support it. As voters, we continually pass bond measures that have no underlying source of income from which to repay those bonds. Investors who buy the bonds are repaid out of the state’s general fund. I read somewhere that these payments total more than $10 billion a year!
While there are obviously excellent reasons to pass general obligation bonds, voters need to be educated about the real cost to the state when they vote on these initiatives. It’s time for us to mandate that no initiative, no matter how well intentioned, which impacts the state treasury can be placed on the ballot unless there’s an identified source of funds available to support the activity. To assist in these efforts and create transparency, we should create a board of review comprising the California secretary of state, attorney general and legislative counsel to provide public comment on the cost and impact the passage of ballot measures would have were they to be adopted by the voters.
California’s initiative process is broken and badly in need of fixing!
Clive Hoffman is president of Clive Hoffman Associates Inc., a Beverly Hills public relations and communications firm. He is also vice chair of the Los Angeles Neighborhood Land Trust.
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