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SPECIAL ELECTION

Democracy's evil twin

You want to bring California government back to its senses? Get rid of the initiatives.

October 30, 2005|Jules Tygiel | Jules Tygiel, professor of history at San Francisco State University, is author of "Ronald Reagan and the Triumph of American Conservatism."

IF GOV. ARNOLD Schwarzenegger really wants to "blow up the boxes" in Sacramento, he should sponsor one two-line initiative:

"There shall be no further initiatives.

"All previous initiatives may be modified by a majority vote of the Legislature."

When asked after the Constitutional Convention in 1787 what kind of government the new American nation had adopted, Benjamin Franklin famously replied, "A republic, if you can keep it." In a republic, there is no monarch. More important, representatives elected by the people enact laws on their behalf.

Throughout the first century of the United States, Americans ardently embraced this idea. When Texans broke away from Mexico in 1836 and formed an independent entity, the rebels dubbed it the Lone Star Republic. The motley frontiersmen who sought to emulate the feat in California 10 years later called their short-lived creation the Bear Flag Republic.

Frustrated by the railroads' and corporations' control of legislative bodies and political parties, agrarian reformers proposed a variation on the republican form of government in the late 19th century -- direct democracy. When elected officials ignored the will of the people, they contended, the people should be able to propose their own laws, reject or revise existing ones and remove public officials. The initiative, referendum and recall would be the instruments of the popular will.

The agrarians failed to achieve their goals, but the Progressives picked up their cause in the early 20th century. Under their leadership, many states and localities, particularly in the West, enacted direct-democracy legislation. At the behest of Progressive Gov. Hiram Johnson, the Legislature added the initiative, referendum and recall to the California Constitution in 1911.

As a rule, liberals, who feared corporate privilege and professed faith in the ability of the masses to govern, championed direct democracy. Conservatives, who advocated laissez-faire economics and feared the tyranny of the majority, opposed it. Johnson's father, Grove, derided supporters of direct democracy. "The voice of the people is not the voice of God, for the voice of the people sent Jesus to the cross," he admonished.

Californians ignored his warnings and adopted a draconian version of the initiative. The Legislature could not amend an initiative passed by voters. Short of a court declaring it unconstitutional, a flawed initiative could only be corrected by another ballot measure. Nonetheless, most Progressives viewed the initiative not as a general tool of governance but rather as an emergency solution. Initiatives were only to remedy the Legislature's gross failures.

California voters generally acted according to this view. From 1912 to 1978, they passed 46 initiatives, about two every three years. Proposition 13 changed this pattern.

The 1978 proposition slashed property tax rates and limited increases on the assessment at the time of sale. It also transformed the state's political landscape in two other critical ways. Since 1933, California law had required a two-thirds supermajority in the Legislature to approve a budget. Proposition 13 applied the supermajority threshold to all tax increases. Thus a small, unified opposition party could paralyze the budget process and block efforts to raise revenues.

The success of Proposition 13 marked the beginning of a new trend. The initiative was no longer viewed as a means to correct the Legislature. Rather, it became an instrument to govern. Between 1982 and 1988, voters passed 22 measures. In the 1990s, they passed 24 more. In the 20 years since Proposition 13, Californians passed more initiatives than in the preceding 6 1/2 decades.

Many of these measures further limited the Legislature's ability to govern. Proposition 4, approved in 1979, imposed limits on the growth of state spending. Proposition 98, passed in 1988, mandated that 40% of the state's general fund be spent on public schools and community colleges.

These and similar measures restrict state legislators' flexibility and curb their ability to reach budget compromises. As a result, direct democracy has turned the annual budget process into an annual budget crisis.

The initiative remains popular among all segments of the California electorate. Liberals are still wedded to the dream of popular sovereignty, and once-skeptical conservatives embrace it as a way to remove many issues from the jurisdiction of elected officials.

In truth, the initiative has, in effect, strangled the republic and made California less governable. The Nov. 8 special election will, by definition, exacerbate, not cure, what ails California.

If we want to reclaim the republican model established by our founding fathers, we must have one final ballot measure: one that terminates the initiative. That would truly be a special election.

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