A Hijacked People’s Right


The history of California’s government-by-ballot-initiative is as virtuous as its results are too often destructive.

Novelist Frank Norris’ 1901 muckraker, “The Octopus,” described the strangulation of farmers by railroad companies in California, supported by toady politicians in Sacramento bought and controlled by the railroads. The book’s damnation of moneyed, corrupt special interests propelled the progressive movement in state politics, culminating in the election of reform Gov. Hiram Johnson in 1911. A believer in the wisdom of the people, Johnson sought to enshrine direct democracy by instituting the initiative petition, the referendum and the voter recall.

One result Johnson might have liked was last year’s recall of an immensely unpopular governor. Otherwise, the recent history of ballot initiatives has brought “The Octopus” full circle. Initiatives, ostensibly on the ballot by popular petition, are too often the tool of special interests that have the money to hire professional petition-gatherers and underwrite misleading media campaigns. The result is state laws and constitutional amendments containing special tax-and-spend favors at the expense of most Californians.


Initiatives also restrict the ability of the governor and Legislature to set priorities and allocate tax resources on the basis of good public policy. Proposition 98, for instance, passed in 1988 with the backing of the powerful teachers unions, forces the state to fund education before all else. There’s no debate. No weighing of one need against all others. Proposition 13, the granddaddy of all the initiatives, sharply reduced property taxes in 1978, but also eventually forced local governments to rely on sales taxes, badly distorting local government land-use decisions.

The state is also seeing the fruits of a 1990 ballot initiative instituting the nation’s strictest legislative term limits. With an inexpert and constantly changing Legislature, lobbyists and special interests write more of the laws and hold vastly increased sway in Sacramento.

Other wrongheaded ballot measures may have their heart in the right place. On the Nov. 2 ballot, Proposition 63, backed primarily by Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), would hit up Californians earning $1 million or more a year for money to expand state mental health services. There’s no question that mental health programs have been starved for decades, but it makes no sense to hijack income tax revenue for such a narrow purpose. What’s next? A dozen more such 1% income surcharges to fix various other social ills? That’s one way to ensure capital flight from the state, not to mention hobble the state’s ability to adjust income tax rates to address its broader budgetary needs.

Another Nov. 2 ballot proposal asks voters to approve a telephone surcharge to support hospital emergency rooms (Proposition 67) and float a $750-million bond to pay for building projects at hospitals for children (Proposition 61). Again, though they address real needs, these measures are too narrow, piecemeal and disjointed.

Not all ballot initiatives are easy to reject. Some respond to repeated legislative failures by an ineffective Legislature. Even some that are built on shaky premises reach a worthwhile, real-world goal. And bond issues are on the ballot because that is required by the state Constitution.

A gridlocked, contentious state government has not done its job in recent years, and that’s one reason for the flood of initiatives. Some balance is being returned to Sacramento with the presence of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Consider his welcome vetoes of “silly bills” that legislators pass as favors to one another in the year-end legislative rush. There are glimmers of a future for rational government on behalf of the people, rather than helter-skelter government too often written by a well-heeled few.

In reviewing these various ballot measures, this page applies a heavy dose of skepticism about the wisdom of the process, and the hope that Sacramento will someday engage in the business of rational lawmaking. Our recommendations will appear over the next few weeks and be posted at They will be summarized in a sample ballot that will first appear Sunday, Oct. 17.