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Initiatives: Use and Abuse

April 19, 1998

One of the enduring myths of California's political system is that the initiative petition is the citizens' own tool for taking action when the Legislature and governor fail to address critical state problems.

It still may be possible for a true grass-roots movement to rise up and right wrongs through the ballot box. But the common use of the initiative in California today is for well-heeled special interests to write their own wishes into state law or the Constitution.

A classic case was detailed by The Times' Dan Morain this past week: the experience of Reed Hastings, a Silicon Valley software executive who has mounted an initiative drive to make it easier to establish charter schools in California. Many Californians like the idea of charter schools, which have greater control and flexibility to pursue programs tailored to community needs.

Hastings turned to the initiative after failing to interest lawmakers in his plan. He asked the experts, in effect, "How do I do it?" The answer: Start with a minimum of $1 million, hire the best politically connected legal talent to draft the measure, get a professional signature-gathering firm to circulate the petitions, engage a professional campaign management team and then expect to spend at least $15 million to wage the campaign, mostly with television commercials.

Hastings is being more reasonable than many initiative authors. He did try the Legislature first. His approach is to lay out a process rather than to try to impose a personal solution by fiat. Once his measure makes the ballot, he says, he will give the Legislature one last try.

Not all initiative efforts are so transparent. One of the more egregious examples of business-by-ballot occurred in 1984 when a firm called Scientific Games wrote and financed Proposition 36, which established the California Lottery. After the proposition was passed by the voters, Scientific Games became the supplier of lottery tickets.

And politicians and officeholders--the original targets of ballot campaigns--often find it to their political advantage to launch initiative campaigns of their own. Gov. Pete Wilson had two petition drives going for the November election but has withdrawn one, dealing with juvenile crime.

Rather than promote sound public policy, many initiatives dictate simplistic solutions for complex problems without regard to the unintended consequences that an initiative can spawn.

In 1978, most voters knew Proposition 13 would cut their property taxes. What they didn't understand was that the measure contained many other provisions dealing with government and tax policy, prompting a long series of court challenges.

And initiatives often propose solutions to problems that don't exist in the minds of most Californians. One measure expected to appear on the November ballot would outlaw the export of horse meat from California for human consumption. Another 50 petitions are seeking November ballot spots, and perhaps as many as 15 will make it.

The modern initiative produces occasional benefits, but at extraordinary cost, says a retired UC Berkeley political science professor, Eugene C. Lee, in a new book entitled "Governing California." Lee says the initiative in California has become "an uncontrolled political force of its own."

What can the voters do, assaulted by distorted and confusing television commercials and mailed "hit" pieces regarding myriad ballot measures? The best course is to try to cut through to the truth by educating oneself with news sources and analyses from respected research groups like the League of Women Voters. The most helpful of all may be the summaries written by the state's nonpartisan legislative analyst in the state ballot pamphlet mailed to every registered voter.

The voter should wonder why the sponsor paid for this measure to be on the ballot. Who will benefit? Who might be hurt? Would the state as a whole be better off with this law or without it? With initiatives, the most qualified voter is the skeptical voter.

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