Political Hay

Voter Initiatives: The Cursed Blessing

In California, public employees are counting on one to save them.

By 9.27.10

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For 99 years California has been blessed and cursed with the initiative process. It is an exercise in direct democracy by which the voters may pass laws and even state constitutional amendments.

From 1912-20, the first decade when the process was available, Californians voted on 40 of them. The number dropped steadily from there to a low of nine from 1961-70. After that, initiatives, fueled by professional signature gatherers, exploded in the eighties to 56; 54 from 1991-2000; and then doubling from 2001-09 to 105. In all, Californians have voted on initiatives 377 times.

All it takes to get an initiative on the ballot is a draft (accepted and titled by the Secretary of State), the gathering of several hundred thousand signatures (the number varies from election to election), and certification of the required number by the Secretary of State. Signature gathering, alone, may cost upward of $2 million. Once the proposition is on the ballot, a campaign costing several more million dollars will be needed to get it passed by the voters.

Nowadays, initiatives are the brainchildren of special interests or very rich individuals riding hobbyhorses -- and funded by them. Proponents try to characterize and title them as “good government” measures as American as apple pie. More than a few of these become a curse on the electorate because they dramatically increase the state's bonded indebtedness or tinker permanently with the state's budget.

A decade ago, for example, voters passed an initiative to mandate that approximately 40 percent of the state's annual budget must be devoted to education. Everyone wants a good education for all children, so why not make sure there was enough money to pay for one? The upshot is that the state legislature's ability to adopt an annual budget is greatly restricted. Ironically, California is now in the top flight of states for teacher pay and the bottom flight for student test scores. The voters clearly didn't get their money's worth.

In 2008, voters finally passed a measure to take redistricting out of the hands of the legislature (which, not surprisingly, gerrymandered districts every 10 years to protect incumbents) and created a citizens' commission to do the job. Approximately 30,000 Californians applied for a seat on the 14-member commission. There has been a thorough winnowing process and the final names are expected to be announced shortly. This commission will reapportion the legislature based on the 2010 census.

Alas, the blessing-curse element is at work on the November 2 ballot. On the blessing side is Proposition 20 which, if passed, will take redistricting of the state's Congressional seats from the legislature and give it to the Citizens' Redistricting Commission. On the curse side, however, Proposition 27, if passed, would eliminate the new commission entirely and give the process back to the legislature. Behind this retrogressive proposition is the state's most powerful special interest, the public employee unions. The cushy pensions and high salaries of public employees are a major contributor to the state's on-going financial woes. For this special interest, the legislature dominated by Democrats beholden to them for political contributions is the goose that lays golden eggs. They do not want an infertile goose.

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About the Author
Peter Hannaford was closely associated with the late President Reagan for a number of years. He is a member of the board of the Committee on the Present Danger. His latest book is “Presidential Retreats.”