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Too Many Ballot Initiatives

January 21, 1998

California's experiment in direct democracy, particularly its love-hate relationship with the ballot initiative, was launched in 1911 to break the Southern Pacific Railroad's iron rule over state government. Nearly 90 years later, citizens and reformers still see the initiative as their check on special interests and a way to bypass the Legislature when it refuses to respond to the public need.

In reality, the initiative increasingly is the tool of amply bankrolled interest groups seeking to lock their own economic or political agendas into state law or the Constitution. This election year, Californians may be subjected to an unprecedented flurry of ballot measures that would do everything from legalizing Nevada-style casino gambling to banning the sale of horse meat for human consumption.

Only five initiatives are on the June 2 primary ballot, but 43 proposals are being circulated for the signatures needed to qualify them for the Nov. 3 general election. Fifteen or more may land spots on the November ballot, surpassing the previous record of 13, set in the fall of 1990.

Over the years, the initiative has grown in popularity during times when the Legislature was perceived as ineffective or disdainful of the public interest. There were only nine such measures on the ballot in all of the 1960s. A turning point came in 1978 with passage of Proposition 13, the landmark measure to slash property taxes that was sponsored by self-styled populists Paul Gann and Howard Jarvis.

Apartment owners were the major financial supporters of Proposition 13--a clear case of economic self-interest. But Proposition 13 also tapped the growing hostility of homeowners to escalating property taxes. Sacramento had grappled with the problem but could not fix it.

Proposition 13 radically altered California's political landscape and propelled the initiative to new popularity, spawning a number of state and local government restrictions on taxing and spending. Others mandated public school finance, created the state lottery, imposed a variety of campaign reforms, clamped term limits on elected officials and dealt with such emotional social issues as affirmative action and state-financed services for illegal immigrants.

The initiative has become big political business as well. It can cost up to $2 million now to gather the signatures needed to win a ballot spot. Campaign spending has soared into the hundreds of millions in some elections.

Polls indicate that California voters believe the process is out of control, but there is no consensus on reforming it. Although voters reject more initiatives than they pass, the initiative concept remains extremely popular.

But initiatives drafted by single-purpose interest groups--on occasion scrawled to life on the back of an envelope--often result in flawed legislation. State and local governments have virtually been put in a fiscal straitjacket by a host of uncoordinated ballot measures enacted over the years. Poorly drafted measures frequently are overturned in the courts, adding to voter frustration.

In the Legislature, there is time and a process for refinement and compromise for proposed laws. With an initiative, it's take it or leave it.

Long-term efforts to find a workable reform of the initiative process should continue. For 1998, however, the best safeguard against imposing shoddy legislation via the ballot box is voter awareness. The most reliable source of information is the secretary of state's ballot pamphlet and in-depth news reporting, not the inevitable distorted television ads. And the final check is a wary California electorate, voting with the knowledge that initiatives ought to be a last resort, not a preemptive strike.

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