The Initiative Tangle

Direct democracy has run amok in California. Instituted early this century as a tool of popular reform, the initiative-petition process now threatens to paralyze state and local government. Too often the initiative has become the broad ax of zealots and demagogues who want to impose their will on all of California. Too often the initiative has become the tool of special interests that, not happy with laws that the Legislature passes, decide to write and pass their own. Too often the initiative has nothing whatever to do with its original purpose of popular reform of government.

In the past 10 years the twin demons of direct democracy, Proposition 13 and the Gann spending limits, have handcuffed government and forced it into contortion acts to try to finance the essential services that people demand. It is difficult to find a public-finance problem in California these days that is not tied directly to Proposition 13 or the Gann limits.

But these are only two examples of initiatives resulting in bad legislation. Many of the campaigns are fueled by frustration with the Legislature’s unwillingness or inability to act. It has gotten so bad that a number of initiative campaigns now are being sponsored by legislators themselves.


Rarely do initiatives stem from grass-roots political movements attempting to change the agenda of government on a broad policy plane. The initiative has been distorted to absurd ends of incredibly detailed special-interest legislation. For instance, the California Lottery did not result from a public uprising. It was written and financed by a single company that makes lottery tickets.

Measures like Proposition 13 usually are poorly drafted, vague and ambiguous. They lead to years of court interpretations and uncertainty. Even worse, initiative statute measures usually cannot be changed except by another vote of the people.

At least in the Legislature, once a bad bill is defeated it usually stays dead. Not so with the initiative process. Proposition 69 is on the ballot again this year after justly being defeated just two years ago. Proposition 69 is the vicious anti-gay AIDS measure sponsored by the Lyndon LaRouche organization.

And in the Legislature proposed laws and constitutional amendments receive hearings. They are tested against competing ideas. Their financial implications are weighed against the availability of revenues. They are analyzed by lawyers. They are subject to refinement and compromise. But initiatives are not put to any of those tests.

The absurdity of the situation is highlighted by the possibility that five separate insurance initiatives could appear on the November ballot in California. Each would grind the ax of the special interest that sponsored it in subtle ways that are not easily apparent to voters. These are the sorts of issues that the Legislature should deal with. But special interests will resort to the initiative process so long as they know that enough money will get their own legislation on the ballot and that enough money for misleading advertising will give it a reasonable prospect for passage. When the insurance industry had its initiative thrown out by the courts recently, it spent $1.3 million and got a new one qualified.

California needs the initiative. It is a valuable safety valve, and it should not be abolished. But there should be some reform that would restore reason to the process and make certain that ballot measures enjoy some broad popular support. Even modest reforms proposed by the League of Women Voters have been blocked in the Legislature. But unless the Legislature acts, someone is bound to circulate an initiative petition to reform the initiative. That should not be necessary.