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Ode to California

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

On Tuesday, Californians will get to do something that I love to do: Vote. The Golden State’s Assembly has placed six measures on a statewide special election ballot.

Forget for a moment that these ballot measures 1A through 1F include a giant tax increase paired with a phony spending cap, an authorization to borrow billions from future lottery receipts, and two spending shifts away from voter-approved programs.

Remember that five of the six propositions seem thankfully headed to almost certain defeat. In fact, the only ballot item that appears likely to win — and win big — is Proposition 1F, which stops pay increases for the governor, top state officials, and state legislators when the general fund is in deficit.

Legislators were offering this one sweetener. Voters seem likely to eat this sweet dessert and leave the meat and potatoes behind.

I won’t blame them for voting down the first five measures. I would, too. In fact, I envy Californians for getting the opportunity to vote these idiotic proposals down. I’d certainly like an opportunity to veto plenty of stuff passed by my legislature, and to weigh in on budget decisions.

In Virginia, decisions are made in Richmond with seldom any direct input from the people. And unlike California and 23 other states, we have no initiative and referendum process to check the legislature or to pass reforms ourselves.

It’s not that California doesn’t have problems; it does. It’s just that the problems don’t stem from too much citizen say-so.

Politicians and insiders often blame California’s voter initiative and referendum process for the state’s budgetary problems. They blame term limits, passed by initiative. They blame the two-thirds vote requirements for the California Legislature to pass a budget or raise taxes, again mandated by initiative.

Yet, they ignore the simple fact that Californians love their state’s initiative and referendum process, and the many reforms that have sprung from the process.

Me? I go with the idea that the customer is always right. And voters, not politicians or anointed experts, are the customers of government.

The Los Angeles Times recently wrote that “Propositions 1D and 1E represent ballot-box budgeting coming back to haunt the California electorate.”

Judging from the polls, voters don’t seem “haunted” at all. They’re set to defeat both D and E, ratifying their original vote to direct certain funding.

Both 1D and 1E are on the ballot because, by law, any initiative statute passed by California voters cannot be repealed by legislators. Instead, legislators must put an amendment to or a repeal of the initiative law on the ballot for voters to decide. In this case, legislators are seeking to divert some funding from mental health and childhood development programs passed through initiatives.

Kent Drum’s blog post on Mother Jones entitled, “The Scourge of the Ballot Initiative” notes that one measure concerns just $200 million dollars. Drum argues, “I’m not about to spend hours pouring over ballot arguments.”

He adds, “This is why we elect a legislature.”

Call me crazy, but I find it sorta nice to be asked, first, before officials overturn my vote.

Mr. Drum says the special election propositions are “one of the reasons I loathe the initiative process these days.”

For the record, none of these six measures are “initiatives” — that is, initiated by the people and petitioned onto the ballot. These six propositions are legislative referrals, placed on the ballot by a vote of the state legislature.

While some voter initiatives have mandated spending or otherwise affected the California budget, the actual impact is nothing like the hype, according to University of Southern California Professor John G. Matsusaka. His paper, “Have Voter Initiatives Paralyzed the California Budget?” concludes:

Virtually all of the earmarked spending was for education, and would have been appropriated by the legislature even without an initiative mandate. Initiatives placed only minimal constraints on the legislature’s ability to raise revenue. The facts suggest that voter initiatives are not a significant obstacle to balancing the budget in California.

The problem in California is the concentration of power in the legislature, resulting in misrepresentation and low public approval ratings.

The best solution? Much smaller districts where shoe leather can compete with money and connections. This means more state assemblymen and senators.

But like most important reforms, it will need to come through the voter initiative process. Legislators won’t want to reduce their personal slice of power.

Sure, bad policy decisions have been and can be made by voters as well as by politicians. Still, politicians retain their gigantic market share — and continually press their overwhelming advantage — in enacting disasters.

California is in trouble, no doubt about it. But the problem isn’t the voters. They’re the solution. 

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