Paul Jacob

Today, California’s robust process of initiative and referendum has been blamed for everything from the state’s financial difficulties to wild fires. It is especially intriguing that opponents of initiative and referendum claim that citizen-initiated measures have spent wildly and bankrupted the state.

Facts are stubborn things, however, and a recent look by the Center for Governmental Studies at ballot measures that spent money found that 83 percent of spending via the ballot came from measures placed before voters by the legislature, not through citizen initiatives. CGS President Bob Stern was forced to inform a joint legislative committee, “Most of the ballot-box budgeting has come from you.”

Most of the spending mandated by initiative comes via one measure, 1988’s Proposition 98, which requires a minimum level of K-12 education spending. Yet, not only is the California Legislature and electorate unlikely to want to slash education spending, Prop 98 specifically grants the legislature the power to suspend its spending requirement should that be necessary. So much for legislators’ hands being tied.

Often, those complaining most loudly about spendthrift voters are really upset about Prop 13. The epoch-making measure mandated that tax increases must garner a two-thirds vote in both chambers of the legislature. Seems Prop 13’s modern-day enemies’ real goal is to shovel in more tax dollars for legislators to overspend, not fewer.

Opponents of the initiative also argue that special interests have hijacked California’s ballot measure process. Certainly, they have tried. Just as certainly, they hold great sway in the state’s legislature (as they do in every other state’s so-called representative institutions and in the Congress). But special interests with their bankrolls and lobbyists don’t fare so well at the ballot box as they do in the corridors of the capitol.

Back in June, Prop 16 went down to defeat even after PG&E, the California utility, spent over $46 million for passage against less than a $100,000 opposing the measure. In 2008, another proposition lost after the Yes side outspent the No side by a margin of 161 to 1. Seems one cannot buy love, nor enough votes to win.

Much of the opposition to initiative and referendum is really displeasure with losing elections, and a belief that one’s agenda may fare better with legislators than with voters. The intellectual way to express this is a support for “representative government” as opposed to “direct democracy.” Hidden behind such high-minded talk is usually a simple agenda: Push the people away from decision-making so as to pull something over on them, against their interests and against their common sense.

If one truly supports representative government, how can one oppose each person representing themselves?

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.