SACRAMENTO – California legislators – who seem unable to come up with an honest balanced budget, who always pursue tax increases and who won’t pass even modest reforms to the state’s unfunded pension system or to anything else, for that matter – want to blame the government’s problems on voters, rather than themselves.
Several bills, some of which are likely to pass, would gut the initiative and referendum process, or at least make that process far more burdensome. The ultimate goal: eliminating the main vehicle Californians have to reform a government that will not be reformed by elected officials, thus leaving us completely at the mercy of legislators and the liberal interest groups that control them.
The biggest danger is Assembly Constitutional Amendment 6. According to the bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Mike Gatto, ACA6 “will require initiatives that spend money or create a new program or mandate to identify and specify the funding to pay for it.” As he explains in a statement, “Too often, voters are snowed by slick campaign commercials into authorizing unfunded mandates that end up costing the state billions of dollars, in perpetuity.”
This sounds appealing until we look at the bill language: “This measure would prohibit an initiative measure that would result in a net increase in state or local government costs exceeding $5,000,000, other than costs attributable to the issuance, sale, or repayment of bonds, from being submitted to the electors or having any effect unless and until the Legislative Analyst and the Director of Finance jointly determine that the initiative measure provides for additional revenues in an amount that meets or exceeds the net increase in costs.”
Despite Gatto’s assurances to the contrary, it’s clear the bill could be applied to initiatives that would reduce taxes, given that such measures, Proposition 13, for example, would result in a “net increase” in costs to state and local governments. Bonds are exempt, which means that these government-supported initiatives to increase taxes and spending get a pass while the people’s efforts to rein in government could be halted.
Proponents are being dishonest about its intent, explains David Wolfe, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers’ Association’s legislative director, who said ACA6’s goal is to eviscerate the initiative process. “You’re going to rely on this?,” he said, pointing at a nearby TV screen featuring a live legislative debate. The initiative process “is the only road to adopt constructive policy in this state.” Wolfe worries that ACA6 would give the Department of Finance the power to decide which initiatives go to ballot, thus leaving control over most initiatives in the hands of the governor’s office.
Another troubling measure would harass signature-gatherers. Sponsored by Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, a Contra Costa Democrat closely aligned with the unions, Senate Bill 448 would require that people who collect signatures wear a scarlet-letter-type sign around their neck announcing whether they are a paid signature-gatherer or a volunteer-signature gatherer, and whether they are registered to vote. Other anti-initiative bills in circulation include one that would give the Legislature the power to amend or repeal voter-approved initiatives after four years.
This is part of a concerted effort championed by liberal think-tank “reformers” and editorialists who blame “ballot-box” budgeting for the state’s fiscal mess and by union organizers who understand that it’s far cheaper to buy legislators than it is to fight taxpayer-friendly initiative campaigns. Their support for “reforms” uses populist language, but the goal is to make sure that only certain special interests can dominate policy in Sacramento.
“In 1911, California voters gave themselves a powerful tool – the power to be a check on the corporate-controlled Legislature by directly passing or overturning laws by ballot initiative,” Justine Sarver of the liberal Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, wrote in the Sacramento Bee. “A century later, however, California’s ballot measure system is broken. Initiatives have become a tool for special interests, usually corporations seeking larger profits, less regulation and lower taxes.”
There’s no doubt direct democracy has serious flaws. From an academic standpoint, I agree with conservative thinkers, such as William Voegeli of the Claremont Institute, who argues that “the results [of Progressive reforms] a century later cannot be what anyone who wishes democracy well had in mind. The state’s people are groaning under the weight of all the weapons they have been given to fight the interests.” He quotes the thoughtful liberal writer Peter Schrag:
“California has 7,000 overlapping and sometimes conflicting jurisdictions … each with its elected directors, supervisors, and other officials, a hyperdemocracy that, even without local and state ballot measures, confounds the most-diligent citizen.”
There’s irony in hearing modern-day Progressives such as Schrag, Sarver and DeSaulnier whine about the results of what their ideological forebears brought into existence. I would never design the system this way, and if there were some way to undo a century of Progressive reforms, I would be for it. But my first reform would not eliminate the only tools the voters, whatever their flaws, have to check the government.
Californians, obviously, tilt to the left when they elect officials, as evidenced by the clean sweep by Democrats of the state’s constitutional offices and by the overwhelming majorities of Democrats in both houses of the Legislature. But when it comes to direct democracy, California voters are surprisingly conservative, as they routinely pass measures designed to limit taxes and reform government.
That’s why the Left is targeting this process.
Even the legitimate concern about ballot-box budgeting is overblown.
For instance, the vast majority of the initiatives placed on the ballot are put there by the Legislature, explains Paul Jacob, president of the pro-initiative Citizens In Charge. “The people aren’t out of control,” he told me. “In reality, the Legislature is out of control.”
The last thing we need, then, is to give that Legislature more power.