Plan B for California, Schwarzenegger and Democracy

Posted: Dec 07, 2003 12:00 AM

California is a big state with big influence. Yet it isn’t the sheer number of voters in all those gerrymandered congressional districts that makes California a political trendsetter; it is the fact that in California there is always Plan B.

The recall was Plan B. Less than perfect, perhaps, but just remember that then-Governor Gray Davis was Plan A.

Now Governor Schwarzenegger is looking at another Plan B. Arnold worries the old bulls in California’s legislature will block his agenda as he begins to bring state government under control. (The state’s term limits law does not fully sweep out these incumbents, some having served 25 and even 30 years in office, until the 2004 elections. It’s not fast enough, but it is coming.)

The legislature is as much despised by voters as Gray Davis was and, collectively, as petty and self-serving as well. Arnold can use the bully pulpit of the governor’s office to rouse the voters, but will legislators listen to the people?

Dan Walters, dean of the state’s political journalists, fears mere public opinion won’t sway legislators because, "…with very few exceptions, legislators are in absolutely no danger of losing their seats, no matter how much public anger Schwarzenegger is able to generate, due to a bipartisan gerrymander of the Legislature's districts two years ago."

So Governor Terminator prepares. Should the legislature block his agenda, Arnold will go over the heads of legislators and directly to the people using the state’s citizen initiative process. Schwarzenegger passed his own initiative in 2002 to fund after-school care. Interestingly, the initiative contained a provision delaying the funding of the program if the state was in difficult financial straits-—a wise bit of forethought seldom seen in capitol buildings.

California’s Plan Bs come via the "if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself" processes of voter initiative, referendum and recall. These measures empower any voter in a state to propose new laws, put statutes passed by the legislature to a statewide vote, or remove an elected official. Citizens petition their fellow voters to demonstrate enough support to place the issue on a statewide ballot.

Granted, such petition drives are not easy, most fail and most measures that make the ballot are then defeated. But, at least citizens have a crucial safety valve to reassert control over their government when necessary.

Progressives brought these reforms to California and other states a century ago in order to help voters overcome powerful, well-funded and entrenched special interests. The first statewide initiative appeared on Oregon’s 1904 ballot. Today, 24 states have some measure of statewide initiative rights, three others have only statewide referendum, and 15 states have a functional process for the recall of public officials.

A century ago, voters in California thought initiative, referendum and recall made sense. They still do today. In fact, voters in every state believe they deserve these basic rights as a check on elected officials. The catch-22 is that in states where voters lack the initiative, legislators can keep their monopoly on passing laws by refusing to offer citizens the very processes whereby citizens could overrule them.

Many in the media share the politicians’ hostility to citizen democracy, arguing that voters don’t have enough information to make complex decisions, especially about how much money politicians get to tax and spend. They do not want initiatives to tie the hands of elected officials and policymakers. Of course, sometimes that is precisely what voters seek to do by initiative.

The Washington Post’s David Broder bemoans that California legislators "have little room to maneuver." The Economist declares, "Empowering the people sounds nice in theory; in practice, it makes it very hard for Sacramento politicians to balance the budget and take care of other state business." Laura Tyson, an economic advisor to former President Clinton, claims that voter initiatives are dictating 70 percent of state spending and pronounced California "ungovernable."

However, facts can get in the way of good political spin. A study by Professor John Matsusaka of the University of Southern California and the Initiative & Referendum Institute shows that "voter initiatives have not caused the California budget crisis…" In fact, voter initiatives dictate only about 2 percent of state government spending.

Professor Matsusaka concludes that "the initiative process is a scapegoat for the inability of elected officials to manage the competing demands for public funds in a period of declining revenue."

The argument for initiative, referendum and recall is not that voters are omnipotent. Democracy may be the best of all forms of government, but it is still government. Voters make tons of mistakes. Take the Congress. Please!

As Lily Tomlin once said: "Ninety-eight percent of the adults in this country are decent, hard-working, honest Americans. It's the other lousy two percent that get all the publicity. But then, we elected them."

The strength of our system-—of any democratic system-—is in having real choices at the ballot box and the opportunity to correct the mistakes we make. For all California’s problems, voters in every state do indeed embrace California’s solutions: citizen initiative, referendum and recall.

Having a Plan B is always a good idea.