If you could do anything to make California better–anything at all–I’m sure you’d do exactly what Merry Susan Hyatt is doing: promoting a ballot initiative that will require public schools to offer real, honest, genuine Christmas music (in effect, Christian Xmas carols) during the holiday season. Ms. Hyatt’s initiative is creating a little buzz now that state officials have given the OK for signature gathering. Mostly, the critics (we plead guilty) point to it as another example of how dumb the state’s initiative process can be.
The would-be doctors assessing the civic illness that seems to afflict California look at their clipboards and see a long list of other symptoms, too: broken budget process, hopelessly polarized Legislature, a disconnect between what people say they want and what they’re willing to pay for.
Then there’s the initiative process, nearly a century old and the chief reason the state’s Constitution has been amended more than 500 times. It’s become a system for the voters–or actually, a select group that’s whiter, richer, and older than the electorate at large– to dictate sweeping policy shifts and budget priorities without much regard for the long-term consequences. The most famous example, probably, is Proposition 13, the 1978 measure that overnight leveled and reduced property taxes and forever restricted local governments’ ability to raise them. But there are plenty of others, including the series of bond measures that fueled a prison-construction boom in the 1980s and ’90s and made possible the rise in the state inmate population from 25,000 in the late ’70s to 170,000 now. And just to make sure the new institutions were filled, the voters also approved tough anti-crime measure like the Three-Strikes Law.
Lots of people are talking about trying to rein in the initiative process. One modest proposal, which comes from UC-San Diego political scientist Thad Kousser among others, is to require initiatives that will cost the state money to say how it will be paid for. The thinking is that with the cost made clear, voters would be less willing to continue writing checks that the governor and Legislature have to find a way to cash even when the state is virtually bankrupt.
The talk about reform is coming on the eve of what may come to be known as the Year of the Initiative. Right now, the June 2010 primary ballot lists a modest total of three measures that have qualified to go before the voters. One is a constitutional amendment that would change the way seismic retrofits are assessed for property taxes. One would set up a system of public financing for state elections. One would create a sort of open-primary system for state offices.
But those three June 2010 initiatives? They’re just the tip of the iceberg. The calm before the storm. The overture to a grand electoral opera. The California Secretary of State’s office lists 68 initiatives–68!–that could wind up on the ballot next year. Of that number, 24 are out in the wild, with organizers and their (often paid) volunteers collecting signatures. Forty-four are under review at the state attorney general’s office to make sure legal i’s are dotted and t’s crossed.
Next year’s ballot booklet will be the size of a phone book.