Californians will soon be asked to vote on nine ballot measures dealing with everything from legalizing marijuana to how our elected officials pass a budget to whether to suspend a clean energy bill.
These measures, disparate as they are, all have one thing in common: They are all initiatives. Californians adopted the initiative process back in 1911. So in one year, we can all wish a big happy 100th birthday to the process that put citizens on the same footing as legislators.
The initiative process was adopted to help give power back to the citizens when it became clear that the legislature was unduly influenced by special interests. Sound familiar? Apparently, we can take comfort in the fact that at least some of our government's problems aren't new ones.
Back in 1911, the special interest Californians most feared was the railroad companies, who had a stranglehold over the State's legislature. Therefore, we adopted a process that allows the citizens to bypass the legislature and directly enact laws. I know, I was a bit skittish too when I first discovered that we don't need our elected officials to pass laws. Jane Citizen, step right up and enshrine your favorite program in our state constitution!
The sad irony is that the process, adopted to give citizens protection against moneyed interests, has now become dominated by those same interests. Now, the question seems to be, do you have $2 million and a desire to enact a law in California? Congratulations! Step right up, you're the next contestant on, "Lets Make a Law."
This process of direct democracy is here to stay. So let's try to improve it.
Here are two ideas to ponder: First, California could institute a system of pay-as-you-go. Do you want to enact a new program? No problem, just tell us how we're going to pay for it. Do you want to cut taxes or fees? Great, merely direct us to the program(s) that will be cut if the measure passes.
This proposal is not without its drawbacks, but it is worth considering. A system of pay-as-you-go would force the electorate to decide how much they want a specific program or revenue cut, in light of its consequences. I was at the harbor recently, and I saw the ship named, "Tax Cuts and More Services" sail away.
Another solution is to improve disclosure. It is important for the voters know who has provided the funding in favor and against initiative proposals. This gives valuable information about who could be harmed and hurt by an initiatives passage.
Disclosure can work. To the surprise of many, on the June 2010 ballot, Propositions 16 and 17, funded by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and Mercury Insurance, respectively, both went down in defeat. The two companies promoting those initiatives outspent the opponents by huge margins, but they still didn't pass. Why not? One answer could be that people looked on the bottom of slate mailers and the scroll across the TV screen, or listened to the end of radio commercials, heard the names PG&E and Mercury Insurance and simply stated, "No, thank you."
Whatever your solution is for the initiative process, there's a surefire way to send a message to proponents and opponents of the November measures. Vote.