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A few modest propositions

October 19, 2006|PATT MORRISON

AGAIN? I have to vote again?

Voting is starting to feel like housework -- soiled laundry, messy dishes. You wash 'em, and five minutes later they're dirty all over again.

We just did this a year ago. And here we are again. Nov. 7 makes the third time in four years that we've voted for -- or against -- a governor. And we're voting too for U.S. Senate, Congress, state legislators and statewide officials. Those elections I'm fine with, because by the time they come around, I'm usually so ticked off at someone about something that I can't wait to tear somebody a new chad.

And then there are the propositions -- 13 of them this time. (I hesitate to gripe because 80 years ago Angelenos had to vote on 96 measures.) They come with all that intimidating technical minutiae, like this nugget from the current voter guide: " ... the tax imposed on passive investment income shall be increased from 1.5% to 1.66% of taxable net passive investment income."

It sounds important, and it is -- so why am I yaying or naying it? I love using my ballot to give the state orders, but I am by no means up to speed on Section 23811 of the Revenue and Taxation Code.

It's like call-in questions on cable-TV news shows: One day it's "Do you think Britney Spears had her babies too close together?" and the next day it's "Do you think Iran has enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb?" How the heck do we know? CNN is asking that of a public that doesn't even believe in evolution? (The Britney Spears answer, by the way, is a resounding "yes.")

During the only debate of the governor's race, Arnold Schwarzenegger was asked what he most regretted in his brief political life. He said it was last year's special election, when voters whacked his four ballot initiatives:

"The people sent a message loud and clear. And that message was, 'Don't come to us for every little thing. Go to the legislators. You guys work it out.' "

When Schwarzenegger came by the newspaper three days later I asked him to elaborate. Was the initiative process onerous? Frivolous? Abused? (Remember, Schwarzenegger only holds office because of the recall, part of the same 1911 reforms that created the initiative.)

"I would say that everything is, in one place or the other, abused. You know, everything," and off he went on a workers' comp detour. Then -- about the initiative process -- he said: "There maybe is a way of refining it and coming up with a better way ... where it has to go through some process, you know, so that you can't just -- you know, you have the money and you go out there."

He was thinking out loud, and I think he may be right. A measure shouldn't get on the ballot just because someone has the money to put it there, and it shouldn't win or lose just because one side can spend the other into submission. Both happen all the time.

Initiatives are born to do what the Legislature can't or won't do, or to undo what the Legislature has done.

Initiatives have given California some mixed legacies, such as Proposition 13; some wonderful legacies, such as the 1972 vote to protect the coast; and some shameful legacies, such as the unconstitutional landslide in 1964 to overturn the state's new anti-discrimination fair housing act. Vox populi can't exactly lay claim to inerrancy.

Californians have labored to fix the process from the get-go. In 1915, do-gooders tried to "authorize the Legislature to protect the initiative from fraud and misrepresentation." Isn't that touching?

I say keep trying. We've got less than two years to the next statewide election, so let's start now, establishing:

* A panel of retired judges to tell voters upfront whether a ballot initiative could be constitutionally queasy, like Proposition 187 -- which aimed to cut off all benefits for illegal immigrants. Initiatives aren't always instant magic; and if the dicey ones pass, California ends up in court, paying to defend them.

* A cap on the number of propositions per election. How does 10 sound? Voters can get so fed up with quantity that quality doesn't matter. The fewer, the more attentive we'll be.

* A decent interval before putting a similar measure back on the ballot. This year's ballot asks whether a minor's parent must be notified before she can get an abortion. We just voted that one down last year. It's like a kid whose mother tells him "no cookies," and he asks every five minutes whether she's changed her mind. Give it a rest. Two elections, at least, between "do-overs."

It's some law of political physics that every initiative tends to create at least one problem for everything it tries to solve. This is my contribution to that great California tradition.

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