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Quite the World, Isn't It?

A troubled process for a troubled state

I've got an idea. Why don't we have one more California ballot initiative -- a binding, non-reversible proposition that would bar more initiatives? Because, as the old saying goes, this is no way to run a railroad.

Voters yesterday rejected five proposals that Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Democratic legislative leaders said were necessary to close the state's $21 billion budget gap. Now that the measures have been shot down, look for some serious budgetary bloodletting -- not all of the dark-day scenarios the governor trotted out over the past few days were scare tactics.

But we also need to take a step back and look at how California got in such straits. And one of the biggest culprits is the initiative process itself. It began as a Progressive-era embrace of direct democracy, but has become so dominated by money-backed agendas that it has just added another mechanism for lobbyists to influence policy.

And I know it's heresy to say out here on the West Coast, but one of the biggest problems is Prop. 13, which has resulted in our absurd tax structure. A family that just bought the same size and design house as ours, a couple of blocks away, will pay more than double the property taxes. Why? Because we bought our houses at different times.

But back to the process itself. Over the past near-century the process has been used to do everything from trying to deny government service to illegal immigrants to taxing cigarettes to provide daycare. Between 1912, when the first initiatives began, to 2002, nearly 1,200 initiatives had been prepared, 290 made it to the ballot and 99 were passed. More, obviously, have been approved since then.

But this is why we have a Legislature, to handle these issues through the mediation of the legislative process. After years of covering politics I understand fully the cynicism with which most people view politicians and legislatures. But this initiative process has done little more than give people with money and an agenda a way to circumvent the legislative process and get their desires inserted into the law books. Instead of making government more responsible, it has, combined with term limits, made it less accountable -- and made it harder to govern.

So let's have one more initiative: End the process. And while we're at it, let's get aggressive about ending the role of money in the political process. That's the fire behind the smoke.
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