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Ballot Bloat Again

Here we go again. Having grappled with nine ballot propositions on the June ballot, California voters now must brace themselves for nine more in the November election. Among them are initiatives to cut electricity rates, raise tobacco taxes and expand gambling on Indian reservations.

The Times has repeatedly expressed its concern about California’s governance by initiative, and this fall’s lineup does nothing to diminish the problem. Good intentions simply do not automatically translate into good laws. California has experienced the unintended consequences of a number of voter-approved initiatives, like 1988’s Proposition 98, which was designed to provide a floor for state allocations to public education but too often has acted as a ceiling instead.

Despite a checkered record, however, California initiatives are watched nationwide as political barometers for hot issues. This fall will be no different. The initiatives will require careful voter analysis over the next few months. Each reflects some degree of dissatisfaction with the workings of the Legislature. Yet the initiative process itself provides what many insist is a civics lesson in government by machete when a scalpel is what’s needed.

Take for example the November initiative that would rewrite the electricity deregulation law passed with uncharacteristic speed by the Legislature in 1996. California is the first state to lift state controls on the electricity industry, and the enabling law is complex and has become controversial because of disputes about how the law affected consumer utility rates.

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The lines of political consultants already have formed, and many hear echoes of the 1988 battle of Proposition 103, the auto insurance initiative that has been tied up in court ever since. Proposition 103 turned out to be the most expensive initiative campaign ever, with $60 million spent, largely by the insurance industry fighting it and two other measures that year.

The coming campaign on the utility measure is “going to be wild to watch,” said one expert on the initiative process and the industry it has spawned. Yes, wild, but how informative and useful?

Many of the same consumer activists who pushed for Proposition 103, including Santa Monica attorney Harvey Rosenfield, are leading what now is a well-practiced, media-savvy campaign; the utilities have turned to the president of the California Chamber of Commerce and the president of the California Taxpayers Assn., among others, to explain their side.

So Californians can anticipate the fall election campaign: on-the-hour TV sound bites oversimplifying a complicated issue in an effort to push the right emotional buttons among voters.

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California’s past reformers wanted voters to have a direct voice in government, thus the creation of the initiative. Somehow, we believe, the way the initiative is used these days isn’t what they had in mind.


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