Paul Jacob

My week began with a celebration: The centennial of California’s initiative process.

I wrote about it at Common Sense, the daily commentary I’ve penned since 1999 (you can sign up for the email version on the Citizens in Charge website). “The enormous impact of California’s initiative process can hardly be disputed,” scribbled I. “Perhaps the best known and most consequential initiative has been Proposition 13.” I concluded by noting that politicians tend to hate being checked by citizens, and that Californians still support this limited form of direct democracy by the same margin they passed it a century ago.

Drik, one of my regular commenters — and intelligent Townhall blogger — offered a somewhat caustic addendum: “And it still didn’t stop the politicians from bankrupting the state.”

No, Drik, it didn’t. The initiative and referendum process didn’t prevent California’s politicians from spending the state to the brink of insolvency.

I’ve written about this before. Unlike some analysts, I don’t see California citizens as the cause of the state’s bad spending habits, or the initiative as their nefarious instrument. Evidence suggests otherwise: legislators, for example, have dramatically hiked spending over the last decade without help from voters. Additionally, the more than 82 percent of ballot measures in the past 20 years that have required greater spending have been placed before voters by legislators, not through the state’s citizen initiative process.

Of course, if you assume that politicians are always right, that every bit of spending they desire is a good thing, then the initiative has hampered their mission. Without Proposition 13, for example, state taxes would be much higher. And maybe the state government wouldn’t be nearly bankrupt.

But the people would. Many, many people.

There’s a reason Californians have repeatedly demanded tax limitation measures and that Prop 13 remains as popular today as it was when passed by voters in 1978: Their politicians’ insatiability.

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.