There is no better time than now to think hard about California’s experience with the initiative process over the past 20 years, starting with Proposition 13, whose 20th anniversary approaches, and moving right up to the present day.
It is probably fair to say that no state has been so whipsawed politically and sociologically by initiatives that don’t do what they purported to do, that actually do what they were never intended to do, and that have spawned a whole series of consequences — and future initiatives — that no one could have foreseen.
While voters are forced to plow through ballot handbooks that stretch into hundreds of pages of pro and con arguments, nine new propositions are on the June 2 ballot, including Propositions 226 and 227, which deal with union dues and politics and bilingual education. More ominous, 52 initiatives are now in circulation for the November ballot, although most probably won’t qualify.
Why ominous? Because, as Sacramento Bee columnist and former editorial page editor Peter Schrag says in his powerfully argued new book, “Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future,” California initiatives have added countless layers of complicated machinery and often contradictory policy directives. They have so confused and diffused political responsibility and accountability that government becomes even more complex and unwieldy than it already is. When things go wrong, voters don’t know whom to blame.
Not only do initiatives bypass representative democracy, this “march of the plebiscites” as Schrag calls them, lock into law tax breaks and other benefits and advantages for the predominantly white, upper-middle class, home-owning electorate that votes, often at the expense of less affluent, primarily minority communities that don’t vote and yet are heavy users of government services. The overall result, he argues, is the “Mississippification of California,” a profound disinvestment in public services, ranging from schools to libraries, highways, parks and other civic amenities.
Since Proposition 13, Schrag writes: “Voters have passed one initiative after another — tax limitation initiatives; initiatives capping state and local spending; measures imposing specified minimum spending formulas for schools; term limits for legislative and statewide offices; three-strikes sentencing laws; land conservation measures; the measures abolishing affirmative action in public education, contracting and employment and seeking to deny public schooling and other services to illegal immigrants; and dozens of others — each of them mandating or prohibiting major programs and policies; or imposing supermajority requirements. Collectively, those initiatives sharply circumscribed the authority and discretion of the legislature, county boards of supervisors, school boards, city councils and the courts.”
This topic got a full airing at a two-day conference last week at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, titled, “Proposition 13 and its Progeny: Is California Suffering from an Excess of Democracy?”
Several panelists — including Gerald Meral, executive director of the Planning and Conservation League; Joel Fox, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, and Ron Unz, chairman of the Proposition 227 or “English for the Children” — argued that initiatives are a good thing. They sponsor initiatives, they said, because the Legislature is often incapable of taking action and solving problems, which leaves citizens no choice but to resort to direct democracy. This is certainly true in some cases, especially with Proposition 13, when the Legislature did nothing while property tax collections skyrocketed.
But political scientist Bruce Cain, acting director of the institute, had a more subtle argument to explain voter frustration and the false populism that initiatives invite. First, he said, the requirement for a two-thirds vote by the Legislature on the state budget makes it harder to get things done. Second, for much of the last 30 years, Californians have opted for divided government, a Democratic Legislature and a Republican governor. Third, most legislative leaders — Willie Brown, David Roberti, Bill Lockyer, John Burton, Antonio Villaraigosa — tend to come from urban, liberal districts, whose ethnic and political composition is far different than the statewide electorate.
“The Legislature represents a population that is almost 50 percent non-white,” said Cain, “while the statewide vote is 70 percent white. So you get a populist impatience with the ‘failure’ of the Legislature to enact the will of the people. But in fact, it’s two different constituencies, one for the Legislature and one for the statewide electorate.”
Other than tinkering around the edges, nobody at the conference had any sweeping proposals to reform the process. But Cain’s analysis at least offered some hope. As the state’s Latino and Asian populations become more politically active, the disparity lessens between the two constituencies Cain describes.
“If the voters and the population that uses public services becomes more alike,” Schrag agreed, “that may mitigate the need for more initiatives.”
McClatchy Newspapers political editor John Jacobs’ column appears in The Bee on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He can be reached by phone at 321-1914; by fax at 321-1996; by letter at Box 15779, Sacramento, CA 95852-0779; or by e-mail at [email protected]