"It's very difficult now to get a group of volunteers together to do anything," said Joyce Koupel, who, with her late husband, Ed, was responsible for qualifying several major initiatives in the 1970s. "People are at work earning money to eat and many women had to go back to work in the late '70s. So almost the entire volunteer community was gutted."
The November ballot tells the story.
Of the 29 measures facing voters, 17 got there by way of the Legislature, either as bond issues--allowing the state to avoid raising taxes even while borrowing billions of dollars--or as amendments to the state Constitution. Both types are required to be submitted to voters.
Of the remaining 12 initiatives, three were sponsored by insurance companies, two by labor unions and one by trial lawyers. Officeholders were responsible for three measures, but also had prominent roles in four of the other initiatives. Only two initiatives got on the ballot primarily through the efforts of broad-based citizen groups.
That is a considerably different development from what Hiram Johnson and the progressives of his era had envisioned when they proposed the initiative amid the widespread perception of the day that the California Legislature was controlled by giant economic interests, particularly the powerful Southern Pacific Railroad. The initiative was adopted by a 3-1 ratio at a special election in 1911, with Johnson and his supporters predicting that it would put government back into the hands of the people.
But conditions changed. Today, the Legislature is once again influenced by warring special interests that often battle each other to a standstill, leaving many politically volatile issues unresolved. The result is these interests, whose power was supposed to be curbed by the initiative, are instead turning to the initiative in ever increasing numbers.
An equally important reason for special-interest domination of the ballot, according to some experts, was voter approval of Proposition 13, the landmark property tax reduction measure. Caren Daniels-Meade, chief spokeswoman for Secretary of State March Fong Eu, said the 1978 initiative, which slashed property taxes, turned out to benefit businesses as much as individuals and opened their eyes to how the process could be exploited.
"When they saw things being successful like the Proposition 13s of the world, they realized they didn't have to just sit there and wait for something to happen," she said. The special interests discovered another major advantage: Unlike legislation that can be amended and watered down as it runs the gauntlet of the Legislature's committee system, once an initiative is accepted for circulation, not so much as a comma can be changed.
But that has a flip side. Because these measures escape the kind of review that often reveals mistakes and weaknesses in legislation, even their sponsors are sometimes surprised by the outcome.
A dramatic example of what can go wrong involves the so-called Briggs initiative, the 1978 ballot measure by then-Sen. John Briggs, which was meant to broaden the scope of the state's capital punishment law. The measure was so poorly written, however, that it took the Supreme Court years to clarify its ambiguities, during which death penalty convictions were repeatedly overturned.
In recent years, it has become clear that most voters are unhappy with the initiative system.
One poll conducted by Common Cause and USC's Institute of Politics and Government found that 71% of those surveyed, although unwilling to see the system scrapped, were highly critical of the initiative process.
Even its harshest critics acknowledge the initiative does provide a necessary "safety valve" to express voter discontent or to send a clear signal to the Legislature on political hot potatoes. The classic example was the overwhelming passage of the tax-slashing Proposition 13 in 1978.
But the Common Cause-USC poll found that even those who were unwilling to do away with the initiative process wanted to see significant changes in how it works. A majority favored limits on contributions to initiative campaigns and laws requiring financial sponsors to be listed on all initiative commercials.
Reform efforts, however, have faltered.
The League of Women Voters, after a massive study, sponsored modest legislation that in one instance would have required a review of all initiatives by the secretary of state's office so that problems could be discovered before the measures reach the ballot. Another League-sponsored bill was intended to bring back the indirect initiative process, abandoned by California voters in 1966, which would give the Legislature a chance to act on proposed initiatives before they go before voters.
Both measures were defeated despite vocal support from Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) and other legislative leader.