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Voters Take Over State Government, One Initiative At A Time

For more than 100 years, Californians have embraced the idea that if you don’t like the way state laws work, go out and write some of your own.

More than 330 initiative drives have been launched since voters got the constitutional right to change laws through ballot propositions, but this popular form of citizen activism has taken some unexpected turns as voters have gone beyond merely tweaking the system, and others have co-opted the process.

Consider some of the major changes Californians have made through initiatives. They have revamped taxation. They’ve imposed term limits on their elected officials. And they’ve dictated how the state must spend its money.


What they haven’t been able to do is to preserve the initiative process exclusively for grassroots groups. Corporations, unions, tribes and even governors have jumped in after discovering they, too, can bypass legislators and take their case directly to the people. What’s more, they could spend as much as they wanted, because the U.S. Supreme Court in 1981 outlawed limits on contributions to ballot measures.

Ballot committees in California have been particularly big spenders, shelling out more than $1.8 billion from 2002 to 2010, far and away more than any other state according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

California voters have said yes to just over a third of the 330 measures on ballots, but initiators are becoming more determined. The number of ballot propositions just keeps growing, almost tripling since the 1970s from 22 to about 60 in the past decade.

Investigative NewSource, a journalism nonprofit based at San Diego State University, explored this bold form of self-governance – exercised to an extreme in California -- as part of its series on government accountability.

We’ve come to the point where the “basic business of legislating ends up at the ballot box in one respect or another,” said Eric McGhee, research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank.


Is that good or bad?

Rewriting the laws on taxing and spending

Proposition 13, the granddaddy of initiatives, started the avalanche in California.

Taxpayers revolted in 1978 against wild increases in property taxes that the legislature failed to control. The measure cut property taxes and capped future increases. This would be impossible in nearly half the states, which bar initiatives affecting appropriations or taxes, said Jessica Levinson, who teaches campaign finance law at Loyola Law School.

Besides reducing property taxes, Proposition 13 toughened the requirements for raising other taxes, requiring two-thirds approval by legislators for state taxes and by local voters for local taxes.

That’s made a huge difference in how government can finance its operations, Levinson said. “I think it’s a big issue that we have citizen legislators -- voters -- practicing ballot-box budgeting.”

Todd Donovan, a political science professor at Western Washington University who has studied initiative processes around the country, said he didn’t think initiatives have had a bigger impact in any other state. It’s one thing that a minority of legislators can block what a majority favors because of the two-thirds requirement, but that Californians can change their constitution by initiative is “over the top,” he said.

Another significant aspect of ballot measures is they need only a simple majority to pass. In 1998, voters decided with a scant 50.5 percent majority to raise taxes on cigarettes to pay for First Five childhood development and smoking prevention programs, Levinson said, “illustrating another point that when people are asked to decide where the money comes from, they don’t mind punishing quote unquote rich people or sinners, like tobacco users. …”

Conservative studies estimate the initiative process ties up 30 percent of the budget; others conclude it’s more, Levinson said.

Unlike voters, the governor and legislature have to compromise and consider the budget as a whole, McGhee said. “An initiative doesn’t require the tradeoffs that legislating does.”

Limiting legislators’ tenure

Voters snatched the purse strings from legislators with Proposition 13, and then stamped them with a sell-by date with Proposition 140, an initiative that capped terms in the Assembly at six years and in the Senate at eight. Dede Alpert, who termed out after representing the San Diego region in both houses, said the shorter tenure gave more power to lobbyists and campaign donors.

“Since term limits, people don’t have enough experience or the comfort of knowing they have the ability to think a little bit independently, so they’re much more likely to go with who sent them there,” she said. “Often that is big-money groups on both sides. It just makes people less willing to join in the middle.”

It’s a far cry from the days of Jesse M. Unruh, a legislator and state treasurer described in his 1987 obituary as second only to the governor in his power in Sacramento. He’s often quoted arguing for independent-minded legislators: "If you can't eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women and then vote against them, you have no business being up here."

A proposition sponsored by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and the city’s Chamber of Commerce on the November ballot would restrict lawmakers to 12 years in the legislature, but would allow them to stay in one branch the whole time. That could strengthen them and make them more willing to work across party lines, McGhee said.

Look who’s using initiatives now

Meanwhile, the initiative process is gaining currency as a way to get around a dysfunctional legislature, Donovan said. More surprising than the growing participation of deep-pocketed corporations, unions and tribes is the involvement of governors who use ballot measures to appeal directly to voters when legislators get stalled. The latest example: On Dec. 5, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed an initiative for the November ballot to address budget shortfalls and avoid further cuts to schools by temporarily increasing the sales tax and income taxes on individuals earning more than $250,000 yearly.

In California elections, high rollers have changed the initiative game considerably.

For example, in 2006, tobacco companies contributed more than $65 million to defeat Proposition 86, which would have imposed a higher cigarette tax. Backers spent more than $15 million. That same year, Proposition 87, which would have increased oil taxes to fund alternative energy, was rejected after billionaire Stephen Bing’s nearly $50 million contribution proved no match for the oil companies’ more than $90 million.

In 2008, four tribes gave more than $107 million to support Propositions 94 through 97, which passed, allowing them to build extra-large casinos in Southern California. Their opponents spent $64 million.

Public employee unions are certain to spend freely to fight any pension reform initiatives. In 2005, unions beat back Proposition 75, which would have curbed union contributions to political campaigns, outspending supporters $54 million to $6 million.

Derek Cressman, Common Cause's regional director of state operations for Western States, said of California’s expensive initiative campaigns, “I have not seen this pop up as much in other states.” The National Institute on Money in State Politics reported that total spending by ballot measure committees topped $235 million in California in 2010, while Washington was a distant second at nearly $63 million.

McGhee, of the Public Policy Institute, believes about 90 percent of the money spent on campaigns goes to initiatives rather than candidates because “candidates are messy; you don’t know what you’re getting, whether they’re going to support your agenda ...”

Reforming the initiative process

Since the Supreme Court has said initiative campaign contributions can’t be limited because that would interfere with free speech, some political observers have looked for other ways to improve California’s initiative process.

Providing voters with the information they want and need is the approach favored by Kim Alexander, president and founder of the California Voter Foundation, a nonprofit that works on using technology to improve the campaign process.

“My attitude is the money is not going away, the initiative process is not going away; we can’t even think about it. But I think it could be improved.”

Specifically, she wants more disclosure of information about who’s contributing to initiative campaigns to make it easier for voters to decide. “Remember, most initiatives get defeated,” Alexander said. “I think voters really are discriminating. I don’t see that many examples where big money has won a campaign.”

McGhee agreed, saying: “Voters seem to have a bias toward saying no. When they’re uncertain, they say no, which is kind of how it should be.”

One reason for the popularity of initiatives is that voters think they make better public policy decisions than the people they choose to represent them. That’s what six out of 10 likely voters surveyed told the Public Policy Institute of California in September last year.

Voters do support changes in the process, though, the survey found: 81 percent like the idea of providing time for an initiative sponsor and the legislature to discuss a compromise before putting the issue on the ballot, 80 favor better disclosure of who’s paying for signature gathering and initiative campaigns and 73 percent want to require any initiative affecting the budget to identify specifically where the money will come from.

However, Gov. Brown has vetoed three reform bills: SB 334, which would have required listing in the ballot pamphlet the top three contributors for or against a measure; SB 448, requiring signature gatherers to wear a badge; and SB 168, making it a misdemeanor to pay petition circulators by the signature.

Of course, voters could always try to override him. All they need are the will, the wherewithal and 504,760 signatures to try to revamp the initiative process in time-honored California fashion -- with a new initiative of their own.