California's Failed Experiment

There are times in California where it is easy to ask yourself why you even bother voting for state elected officials. After all, over 40 percent of the state's discretionary funding is already allocated due to ballot measures and if you don't like something the electeds do, well, you can start an initiative to change it.

In fact, over the last decade, California voters allowed over 100 propositions (initiatives) on the ballot to do just that. These propositions, or props as they are commonly known, cover such important topics as creating a "none of the above" option on ballots (failed) to ensuring the fair treatment of farm animals (passed). Some have relatively no bearing on the state budget, such as certain insurance reforms or school voucher proposals, while others are remarkable for their blatant attempt to hamstring the budget.

In 1978, Proposition 13 was enacted, triggering an explosion in the number of ballot initiatives in California. Prop 13 imposed strict limits on local property taxes - much to the detriment of local government budgets and school districts. It also requires a two-thirds vote to raise taxes, thereby granting significant power to a minority in the legislature and possibly hamstringing the legislature more than any other element. Ironically, Prop 13 itself was passed by less than two-thirds of the electorate. Additionally, the success of Prop 13 set off a national reform movement toward providing property tax relief, which some have argued has led other states to raid schools and social services.

If Prop 13 was the beginning of a new movement, 1988's Proposition 98 was the exclamation point. Passing by less than 200,000 votes out of over 9 million cast, Prop 98 mandated that a minimum of 40 percent of the state general fund be spent on K-12 and community college education. Due to complex formulae that ensure growth during strong economic times, expenditures have actually grown over the 40 percent minimum in the last decade. This places enormous budgetary pressure on other discretionary funding items such as higher education, social services and the courts. This isn't to say that guaranteed funding for education is a bad thing per se - but coupled with other propositions and guaranteed funding structures the legislature's ability to govern has been greatly reduced.

Interestingly, the initiative process was designed to protect the electorate from the same interests it now protects. According to Robert Stern, President of the Center for Governmental Studies, "the initiative process evolved out of an attempt to wrest control of the state's political process away from special interests." These interests included monopolies at the time such as the Southern Pacific Railroad. However, over time this experiment in direct democracy has actually empowered rich interests to advance their agendas and circumvent the legislature on certain issues.

Using large purses to fund complex and/or hot button issues, sometimes simply to drive a specific voting bloc to the polls, special interests have worked to create a fourth estate of politics - one not beholden to standard checks and balances.

Compounding this political morass is that the ballot initiative itself has become a lucrative business. Signature gatherers, those charged with helping qualify initiatives for the ballot, are paid $1 or more for each signature they obtain. Some companies will even provide signature peddlers free board if they reach a certain quota of signatures. Initiatives can cost well over $1 million to qualify for the ballot, almost assuring that true grassroots direct democracy is ignored in the process.

It is easy in California to blame the legislature for our budget ills - and clearly some blame does rest squarely with legislative decisions. But California's experiment in direct democracy has created legacies (two-thirds budget and tax requirements, term limits and more) that endure well beyond the election cycle in which they are enacted. Maybe what Californians need is a ballot initiative to end all ballot initiatives. Where do I sign?