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The Special Election | Michael Hiltzik

It's Time to Fix the Initiative Process

November 10, 2005|Michael Hiltzik

Gov. Schwarzenegger and his people will probably try to spin Tuesday's vote as the defeat of reform by special interests.

This threadbare refrain has two purposes: to paint his package as more substantial and thoughtful than it was, and to reinforce his self-image as a valiant battler for truth, justice, and the American Way.

But there's no evidence that Californians would have turned thumbs down on reforms they regarded as genuine and effective. With the governor's slapdash efforts having been spurned decisively, the stage is set for new efforts to fix what's broken in state government.

Plainly, a high priority must be given to reforming the initiative process itself. It has long been an article of faith that Californians so adore their initiative rights that no tinkering is possible or wise. Tuesday's results suggest, on the contrary, that voters are fed up with the system in its current condition.

They showed mistrust at its contamination by corporate money (the prescription drug measures), at excessive complexity (electricity regulation, redistricting) and at being asked to rule on issues best suited to a legislative balancing of priorities (abortion, healthcare, energy policy).

With 45 propositions circulating, pending or qualified for the June ballot, the time is ripe to revisit the numerous reforms for the initiative process that have been suggested over the years.

These include restricting initiatives to regularly scheduled statewide elections, so initiative backers can't shop around for primaries or other low-turnout ballot dates. Schwarzenegger obviously expected the poor turnout of a special election to help him. (He didn't miscalculate the turnout, only its political coloration.)

Other reforms would allow -- even require -- the Legislature to weigh in on proposed initiatives by holding hearings and trying to craft compromises to avert ballot-box showdowns. For all that the Legislature is routinely deprecated by ordinary voters and political poseurs alike (the governor not excepted), it's an indispensable part of the government. In recent years it has habitually backed off any issue headed for the ballot, but the less it participates, the further it withers. It's time to reintegrate our elected lawmakers in the process of making laws.

Californians are still clamoring for solutions to failing schools, the state budget deficit, high prescription drug prices and extortionate electricity bills. But if there's an overarching lesson from Election Day, it's that the voters weren't misled by nostrums masquerading as solutions. That's especially true in education, where the alpha and omega of Gov. Schwarzenegger's reform policy has been the demonization of teachers.

No one can argue that the quality of teaching isn't part of the problem, only that it's far from the only part. In any case, it can't be fixed purely by punitive or manipulative policies. You have to give teachers the tools and administrative support to improve their work, involve them in setting goals and priorities, and provide real rewards for real success. That's the approach being tried in Denver, where voters last week passed a $25-million increase in annual property taxes to fund a pioneering pay-for-performance program, worked out with the cooperation of the teachers' union.

Ironically, the Denver program was funded in its pilot stage by the Broad Foundation, the philanthropic body created by Los Angeles builder and financier Eli Broad. Instead of mounting an equivalent effort in this state, however, we've been distracted by such efforts as bickering over whether the governor did or didn't renege on a funding promise to schools, and whether the school budget is or isn't a record. Here's a news flash: It doesn't matter that your school funding is a record, if it still isn't sufficient to achieve your ends.

Then there's the overall fiscal crisis. Gov. Schwarzenegger quite properly identified the budget as needing reform, but went about it in his typically ham-handed fashion, sweeping one entire category of solutions -- tax policy -- off the table even before his 2003 election.

Having now been denied unilateral authority to cut spending, perhaps he will recognize that there are two sides to the budget equation. When you cut state programs, you are in effect imposing a tax on their users, principally the middle and working classes. Schwarzenegger has insisted that these residents make all the necessary sacrifices to balance the state budget.

An experienced politician would know that such sacrifices would go down a lot better if he asked equivalent sacrifices of others, including commercial property owners, whose buildings should be subject to more frequent reassessments, and the wealthy, whose marginal tax rate has declined since 1994 while the cost of state services has gone up for everyone else. (In that period, for example, resident tuition at the University of California has risen by 50%.)

Creating comprehensive reform means joining in political give-and-take with numerous interests, "special" and not so special. Until Tuesday, the governor's strategy seemed to involve dictating a policy, making a stab at negotiation and compromise, and stalking off petulantly to the initiative boutique when he didn't get his way or merely ran out of patience. This was his method of spurning "politics." Of course, when you define politics as something dirty, you're setting yourself up for failure in Sacramento, filled as it is with people who do politics for a living.

On election night, Schwarzenegger pledged a new era of "bipartisan cooperation" and tried to project a new humility. But a personality change isn't really what we need from him. We need him to become a politician.

Golden State appears every Monday and Thursday. You can reach Michael Hiltzik at and view his weblog at stateblog.

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