Two articles about the current measures on the ballot in California that illustrate the need for reform of the initiative & referendum process in that state as well as many other states in order to make the process less driven by big money and more accessable to the people. - EDITOR
A long way from the grassroots
Sunday, October 12, 2008
There is no big secret to the formula for manipulating California's initiative process. Find a billionaire benefactor with the ideological motivation or crass self-interest to spend the $1-million plus to get something on the ballot with mercenary signature gatherers. Stretch as far as required to link it to the issue of the ages (this is for the children, Prop. 3) or the cause of the day (this is about energy independence and renewable resources, Props. 7 and 10). If it's a tough sell on the facts, give it a sympathetic face and name such as "Marsy's Law" (Prop. 9, victims' rights and parole) or "Sarah's Law" (Prop. 4, parental notification on abortion). Prepare to spend a bundle on soft-focus television advertising and hope voters don't notice the fine print or the independent analyses of good-government groups or newspaper editorial boards.
Ten of the 12 statewide measures on the Nov. 4 ballot came through the initiative process, which was created nearly a century ago to offset the grip of Southern Pacific Railroad on the California Legislature. Today, the initiative process is no longer the antidote to special interests and the moneyed class; it is their vehicle of choice to attempt to get their way without having to endure the scrutiny and compromise of the legislative process.
Five initiatives have been buoyed by a single wealthy contributor. Most audaciously, T. Boone Pickens, the Texas oilman, bankrolled Prop. 10, which asks Californians to borrow billions to fuel natural gas vehicles. Pickens happens to be the founder of Clean Energy Fuels Corp., which - you guessed it - supplies natural gas to fleets of vehicles. Other initiative backers appear driven more by philosophy than profit. George Soros, the New York financier and liberal activist, is the bucks behind Prop. 5, which would increase drug treatment as an alternative to prison. Peter Sperling, a devout environmentalist and son of University of Phoenix founder, is supplying the funding for Prop. 7, which would increase the state's commitment to renewable energy. Major environmental groups, however, oppose it as unrealistic and sloppily drafted.
Then there are Props. 6 and 9, the tough on (selected) crime trust-fund babies of Henry T. Nicholas III, an Orange County billionaire tech executive who has been indicted by a federal grand jury in connection with securities fraud and drug-related offenses. But Nicholas, who has funded other anti-crime campaigns in the past, has nothing to fear from his Prop. 6: It's aimed at toughening penalties on gangs, illegal immigrants and criminals trying to get into Section 8 housing - not CEOs gone bad.
It's time to get past the illusion of the initiative process as a grassroots domain. As much attention as Hollywood actor Brad Pitt received for his $100,000 contribution against Proposition 8 - the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage - recent campaign disclosure reports showed that conservative activist Maggie Gallagher donated $1.45 million to Yes on 8.
Having sat through many hours of meetings with the proponents and opponents of these propositions, I say: When in doubt, vote no. Most of these measures - such as Prop. 2, which would require farmers to put chickens in more spacious cages - do not belong on the ballot. They should be resolved in the Legislature, where competing interests can be heard and balanced. Voters should reject all non-capital-investment proposals that commit the state to annual spending without offering a funding source: Prop. 5 (drug treatment, $465 million), Prop. 6 (tougher sentencing, $900-plus million) and Prop. 9 (victims rights and parole, "hundreds of millions," according to the Legislative Analyst).
Only one measure on the Nov. 4 ballot truly fits Gov. Hiram Johnson's early 1900s vision of "direct democracy" as a way to bypass a corrupt and power-mad Legislature: Prop. 11, which would strip lawmakers of the ability to draw their own district boundaries. Trust me: Legislators are not going to voluntarily cede that duty to an independent commission. Ever.
But the question is: Will bleary-eyed voters have the attention spans to get to Prop. 11? In addition to the 12 statewide measures, San Franciscans will be staring at 22 local propositions, on everything from decriminalizing prostitution to allowing the city to take over electricity service from PG&E to naming the sewage treatment plant after George W. Bush.
I'm waiting anxiously for the initiative reforms proposed by the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies: Limit contributions, increase transparency and offer an opportunity for proposals that gain the required signatures to go to the Legislature for a final shot before going to the ballot for an all-or-nothing decision.
All they need is billionaire benefactor. Unfortunately, good-government initiatives don't do much to feed the ego or line the pocketbook.
John Diaz is The Chronicle's editorial page editor. You can e-mail him firstname.lastname@example.org.
Most of the ballot propositions should be defeated
Thinking it through, By RICHARD REEB
California’s voters will be inundated in the remaining days of the campaign with flyers, telephone calls and e-mails urging them to vote “yes” or “no” on the 12 ballot propositions to be decided on Nov. 4. Even though some organization claims to have endorsed or rejected a measure, that neither tells us very much about it nor provides very much help with understanding what we’re voting on.
But such communications are perfectly understandable for various reasons. First, there are a dozen measures for our consideration, which range in length from one sentence (Proposition 8: Affirming natural marriage) to 21 pages (Proposition 4: Adolescent abortion waiting period). It took eight pages for the legislative analyst to explain Proposition 5 (Nonviolent Drug Offenses), which is 17 pages long, and six pages to explain Proposition 7 (Renewable Energy Generation), which is seven pages long. That’s a lot to absorb for the millions of us who are not legislators.
Second, besides being numerous and lengthy, these propositions are inherently complicated. This is so not only because they are necessarily written in legalese, with which most voters are unfamiliar; they also include multiple provisions. That’s often the nature of laws but more accurately the nature of the bureaucratic laws that are the curse of the modern administrative state. Plus, these measures are sometimes the product of a process in which various interests obtain provisions to suit them as the price of their support for the entire measure.
Third, we are presented with an all-or-nothing decision that forces us to accept or reject the measure in toto even though there are sections that should be left out or included. We lack the flexibility of legislators who can amend to strike or add provisions that detract from or improve the bill.
But, since 1910, when the Progressive movement brought us direct democracy in this State, voting on these propositions has been part of our electoral responsibilities. The very feature that gave rise to this reform, namely, legislative dereliction, has not been overcome. Indeed, politicians seeking to avoid making hard decisions like it when the matter is thrown to the voters, for that lets them off the hook.
In spite of all these difficulties, direct initiatives (measures initiated by citizens outside the legislature) have often corrected bad public policy. The most famous example, of course, is Proposition 13, the property-tax-cutting measure approved by the voters in 1978. Besides such limits on taxing and spending, strong law-enforcement measures that cannot make it through our Democrat-dominated legislature can be enacted directly by the voters. Propositions 6 (Police and law enforcement funding, 13 pages) and 9 (Victims’ rights, four pages) fall into that category.
All bond measures have to be approved by the voters. These include Proposition 1 (High speed rail), 3 (Children’s hospitals), 10 (Alternative fuel vehicles) and 12 (Veteran housing loans). And all constitutional amendments must also be approved, such as Propositions 1, 4, 8, 9 and (once again) a measure (11) to take the power to draw legislative district lines from the legislature and assign it to a special commission.
There are two energy-related statutes on the ballot. These include the aforementioned Proposition 7, as well as Proposition 10. They are among 10 initiatives, half of which are constitutional amendments and half of which are statutes. Also in the latter group is Proposition 2, Standards for confining farm animals.
The first part of the 143-page booklet includes summaries, analyses and arguments pro and con. Well over half of the remainder contains the full text of the measures, including existing, revised and deleted language. Winston Churchill once said, “The devil is in the details,” and he wasn’t kidding. The reading is truly forbidding, especially when it is in small type, single spaced, double columns. More power to anyone who attempts, much less finishes, that project.
Still, we must decide. I think “yes” votes are in order for Proposition 4, mandating that adolescent girls inform a family member of their impending abortion; 6, guaranteeing funding for local law enforcement; 8, protecting male-female marriages; 9, affirming victims’ rights in the justice system; and 11, opening up legislative elections to real competition.
“No” votes should be cast for all bond measures (1, 3, 12), which undermine California’s currently precarious credit; alternative energy schemes (7, 10), which subsidize uneconomical and unproven technology; and misguided feel-good reforms that comfort animals and drive up the cost of production (2) or coddle drug peddlers in the name of “rehabilitation” (5).
ABOUT THE WRITER:
Richard Reeb taught political science, philosophy and journalism at Barstow College from 1970 to 2003. He is the author of “ Taking Journalism Seriously: ‘Objectivity’ as a Partisan Cause” (University Press of America, 1999). He can be contacted at email@example.com.