Opinion

The Initiative-Industrial Complex

PoliticsCitizens Initiative and RecallElectionsNational GovernmentEducationReferendaGovernment

It was easy to miss the opening bell for California's Feb. 5 primary. Tuesday, the day after Labor Day, is the traditional start of the campaign season, but anyone with a car radio set to an AM talk station or an FM NPR station -- or for that matter, anyone with a couch, a TV that picks up C-SPAN and a penchant for playing with the remote -- knows that the presidential campaign has been droning on for months already.

But this is California. Presidential campaigns are small potatoes here; this is the home of the ballot initiative. Our picks in the Republican and Democratic primaries will only haunt us for another four years, eight years tops. Our votes on the down-ballot stuff -- the low-profile initiatives -- are the ones that can hang over us forever.

It's not that the February ballot is stuffed with initiatives yet. There are three so far (and they are doozies). But remember that February is an extra election this year, meaning we'll have three different ballots filled with voter initiatives and, probably, measures sent our way by the Legislature.

No initiatives have qualified yet on the stealth ballot, also known as the June 3 Statewide Direct Primary Election. There's only one for the Nov. 4 presidential election ballot.

But there are, right now, 29 initiatives in circulation, with proponents aiming for a spot on one of the three ballots. Less than two years after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's failed special election, with its hopeful predictions that the age of ballot measures was over, the Initiative-Industrial Complex is still in high gear. Political professionals with a penchant for raising cash and gathering signatures are still trying to trick people into weakening their government, diminishing their clout on the national stage and going deeper into debt for one speculative project or another.

Start with February, and the Community Colleges initiative [pdf]. You may not have known that there is a crisis in community college governance and funding, but it's true. Community colleges take all comers, with or without high school diplomas, and are supposed to be funded out of the same portion of the state budget that's reserved for K-12 public schools. They are always shortchanged because the grade schools and high schools need every penny they can squeeze out of the budget. Local districts sell bonds to construct new buildings, then end up sitting on the money (which they can't apply toward academic programs) because they need approval from Sacramento before they can build.

So how about an initiative to guarantee a portion of the budget for the colleges and to give locals more direct authority over running them?

It makes perfect sense. And it would be an absolute disaster. The budget is already chopped to bits by voter initiatives that removed from lawmakers' hands any flexibility over spending. Under Proposition 98, approved in 1988 by voters who apparently believed that the Legislature was hoarding funds and preventing public schools from getting the cash, roughly half the annual budget is removed from discussion each year. It must go to the schools. This initiative would take a portion of that and make sure it goes to the community colleges. The next logical step would be to take another chunk and say it must be spent on fourth-graders.

Tying the Legislature's hands doesn't give lawmakers more money to work with. It just gives them fewer chances to make smart decisions.

So the poor Assembly members and senators are just trying to do good deeds and we voters won't let them? Not quite, as shown by the Term Limits initiative. Now loosening term limits is a good idea -- as long as lawmakers are honest about it. But the term limits initiative simply advises voters that legislative term limits will be shortened from a possible 14 years -- three two-year terms in the Assembly plus two four-year terms in the Senate -- to 12 years total, in either house. So they get more. But they get less. Oh, and by the way: Currently sitting members of the Legislature would get to count their 12 years from when they first joined whichever house they're in now. So if, for example, an assemblyman served four years, went to the Senate and served eight, and now is back in the Assembly for a final term, and the initiative passes, he could end up serving a total of 22 years.

Rounding out February -- so far -- is an initiative that would prohibit transportation funds from being raided for other purposes. I'm trying to keep a straight face as I type this. Didn't we just pass an initiative that claimed to do just that? Yes. Didn't we do one like that before? Yes. But, see, the wording in each was a trifle different and applied to different funds and had different exceptions, so transportation funds (taxes, bond revenue) that are earmarked for transportation are still being spent on balancing the general fund. It's the initiative equivalent of Lucy promising Charlie Brown she will hold the football while he runs up and kicks it. She has pulled it away so many times, on so many pretexts, that she must really be ready, this time, to hold it in place.

Signatures have been filed but are still being counted for an initiative that would impose a 45% property tax on resident-owned property exceeding $40 million in value. This is one of those politically tricky ones. People who are that rich are still few enough that they can't outvote the rest of us. But they are rich enough that they can hire psychological profilers and direct mail consultants who in turn can convince us that we would be badly hurt by taking their money.

In November, voters will have the opportunity to put the state $10 billion further in debt in order to plan and build a very cool-sounding high-speed electric train from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Avoiding traffic to LAX is worth $10 billion, isn't it?

As for the rest of the 29, three would trump whatever redistricting plan the Legislature is currently trying to come up with. Four would scuttle Indian gaming compacts, but perhaps to make up for that, one would create a state Internet poker site. One would scale back workers compensation reform. One would end the per-diem pay that lawmakers get on top of their salaries. Two would restrict government acquisition of private property by eminent domain. Two would eliminate domestic partnership rights. Two would ban gay marriage (already banned by a previous ballot initiative).

As for the rest, read them yourself. And weep.

Robert Greene is a member of The Times' editorial board; click here to read his archive. Send us your thoughts at opinionla@latimes.com.

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