The five initiatives on this June’s primary ballot cover a broad spectrum of issues, from union dues to school administration, from term limits to bilingual education. But at least four of the five have one thing in common: They are deceptively simple, with the emphasis on the adjective. All are likely to pass; every one of them is a turkey.
The lamest of the five is Proposition 225, which has already been declared unconstitutional in another state, but like the prototypical dead candidate whose name remains on the ballot, it may well be “elected.”
It would call on the state’s legislators and members of Congress to work for the adoption of a constitutional amendment limiting members of the House of Representatives to three two-year terms and members of the Senate to two six-year terms. Those who fail to do so, or candidates for office who refuse to pledge to do so, would have a mark placed next to their names on each election ballot indicating that they had “failed to follow” the will of the electorate.
Once dubbed the “scarlet letter” initiative, it passed in nine states two years ago, but was struck down by the Arkansas Supreme Court as an unconstitutional means of trying to amend the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the Arkansas decision, thus in effect upholding it, and U.S. Term Limits, which funded the scarlet letter campaign, has since given up on it. But the initiative will probably pass in California anyway. Once again, the voters will feel frustrated.
Unfortunately, the others, all of which will be promoted — falsely — as simple matters of fairness and common sense, will be far less harmless. Two of them — Proposition 223, which would rigidly limit spending on school administration in local districts, and Proposition 227, which would severely curtail bilingual education, respond to real problems. But as is often the case with initiatives, they do it with overkill solutions.
Much of bilingual education in California is a mess that badly wants reform. But there are bilingual programs that work, and bilingual options that should be available to children who can benefit from them. Proposition 227 would require children to fail for 30 days in regular classes each year before they could be enrolled in the program their parents want. It replaces the inflexibility and mindlessness of the present system with the rigidity and top-down dictates of another one.
Proposition 223 grows from a similar impulse. It responds to bureaucratic bloat in some districts — particularly in Los Angeles, whose teachers union is its principal backer — with a lethal formula that would require every district to spend no more than 5 percent of its operating budget on administration, and severely penalize those that failed to meet the goal. Like DDT, it would kill this generation of mosquitoes, but it would kill a lot of other living things as well.
That would hit small districts, which have far less administrative flexibility, particularly hard. And since it could prompt shifts of functions from relatively efficient, centralized operations downtown — in managing supplies and evaluating textbooks — to redundant school-site administration, it could in fact induce more inefficiency. It would also make it far harder to discipline bad teachers or to go through the long and costly process necessary to fire them. But it is simple, and it will make for great campaign slogans.
The same is even more emphatically true for Proposition 226, which, if it passes and is upheld by the courts, could become the most far-reaching and radical political measure enacted in California in decades.
Proposition 226 would require labor unions to get the annual consent of each member before they could use any portion of his or her union dues for political contributions. It would thus impose restrictions on one category of membership organizations that are not imposed on any other group — not the Sierra Club, not the Catholic Church, not the California Medical Association, not the Chamber of Commerce or any corporation whose stockholders routinely fund any number of political operations they probably don’t approve of and may not even know about.
It is being sold with a nice simple appeal as “payroll protection” — a defense of “workers rights” to choose what political activity, if any, they will support. The pitch, of course, does not say that its deep-pockets funders — among them Indiana insurance magnate J. Patrick Rooney and Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, both backers of House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s GOPAC fund — have never given a hoot about workers’ rights and include among them the financial backers of some of the most conservative political groups in the country. The real objective of “workers rights” here is its precise opposite: further unleveling a political playing field in which working people are already outspent 10 to 1 by corporate PACS and other business interests. Needless to say, it is a boon to Republicans and a blow to Democrats.
The genuinely sad irony is that the pitch will probably sell and that no explanation of the damage the measure will do to the very workers in whose name it is being propounded can be made simple enough to stick. And in this era, when appeals to individualistic market-driven values are far more successful than those directed to collective responsibility, Proposition 226 can be sold as the very essence of political morality.
The defenders of direct democracy argue that generally the voters will smell out the bad proposals and reject them. But since our vocal plebiscitarians tend to see almost anything that passes as good by definition — vox populi, vox Dei — the argument is hardly persuasive. What seems probable, so far at least, is that voters will not learn nearly enough about these sloganized turkeys, and that all, even the dead one, will pass. Surely there has to be a better way. More about that in a future column.
PETER SCHRAG’s column appears in The Bee on Wednesday. He can be reached by fax at 321-1996; or by letter at Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852-0779.