No state uses the blunt instrument of direct democracy more than California. With each election, Californians are asked to resolve ever more complicated questions via the ballot. And why not? We don’t trust our elected representatives very much, and our representatives are all too eager to defer politically difficult decisions to us.
In short, we get the dysfunctional government we deserve.
For conservative voters, the choices this week seem straightforward enough, assuming we follow two simple rules of thumb: Any ballot measure that, on balance, limits state government power and strengthens local accountability is laudable. And any measure that would expand the state’s power to tax and spend is loathsome.
Accordingly, Proposition 22, which would bar the state from “borrowing” tax money from local governments to close the budget deficit year after year, has a certain visceral appeal. So does Proposition 24, which would allow businesses to write off net operating losses — a relief, certainly, for entrepreneurs struggling to make payroll during a sluggish economic recovery.
Proposition 20 would deny legislators the power to gerrymander congressional districts by extending the power of the new, independent citizen redistricting commission. Although it’s possible that the citizen commissioners will be beguiled by their professional staff, it’s also possible they’ll do a better job serving voters’ interests — an outcome that helps explain why Proposition 20 is on the ballot in the first place. Meanwhile, voting to abolish that redistricting commission, as Proposition 27 urges, would merely re-empower political hacks.
And voting ourselves a car-tax surcharge to help fund state parks, as Proposition 21 suggests, is more of the same “ballot-box budgeting” that helped create multibillion-dollar deficits in the first place. Lawmakers shouldn’t be able to use fees, surcharges and other such gimmicks to circumvent the supermajority requirement to raise taxes — a loophole Proposition 26 attempts to close.
Under most circumstances, the aforementioned rules of thumb are worth sticking to. But every rule has an exception.
Consider Proposition 19, which would legalize marijuana. Conservatives are divided on the question. Pot may be relatively harmless, and heaven knows there are better things for police to do than bust college? dopeheads. (Armed drug smugglers are another matter.) But the idea of establishing yet another tax-collecting apparatus is troublesome. And though there may be excellent reasons for California to go toe to toe with the federal government over the federalism question, does it really have to be about this issue? Right now?
Or take Proposition 25, which would remove the supermajority requirement for passing a budget (as opposed to raising taxes). Most Republicans would say we shouldn’t make it any easier for those profligate scoundrels in Sacramento to spend more of our money. It’s a venerable argument. But it betrays a failure of imagination among Republicans desperately clinging to a dwindling minority position in the state Capitol.
Getting out from under the two-thirds rule in this case could force a feckless state GOP to behave a bit more like the congressional version of the party. Republicans in Congress provided not a single vote in support of President Obama’s $787-billion stimulus package last year. Only a handful supported healthcare reform, with most Republicans wisely rejecting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s advice to vote for the bill in order to “find out what’s in it.” As a result, Democrats own those disasters exclusively, and the GOP is poised to win huge gains in the House and send Pelosi packing.
Why aren’t Republicans on course for similar gains in the Legislature? In part because the two-thirds budget threshold puts them in an impossible position. Vote no, and be tarred as obstructionist. Vote yes, and sell out core Republican principles. Either way, Republicans look downright ineffective — because they are.
If Proposition 25 becomes law, a future budget passed along purely party lines would force the (usual) Democratic majority to justify every cent of every program. And Republicans would be obliged to convince voters why their budget would be better. In other words, voters could evaluate the debate, see the result and reward candidates accordingly in the next election. It’s called accountability. Just like what’s likely to happen in the House on Tuesday.
Proposition 23 is a much easier call, yet it’s struggling in the polls. The measure would suspend most provisions of AB 32, California’s Global Warming Solutions Act, until unemployment drops below 5.5% for four consecutive quarters.
Opponents have painted the measure as a ploy by Texas oil companies to preserve their unfettered right to pollute California’s air and water. In another failure of imagination, Republican standard-bearer Meg Whitman has come out against 23, saying she would rather suspend the greenhouse gas law for a year to give businesses more time to prepare for AB 32’s virtually unprecedented expansion of state power.
Here’s the reality: Big corporations will be fine, whether or not Proposition 23 passes. And California would have the strictest environmental protection laws in the country without AB 32. But imposing a raft of expensive new regulations on businesses, as AB 32 does, in the midst of 12.5% unemployment and a sluggish, uncertain economic recovery is hubris defined.
The small manufacturer, the independent trucker, the midsize farmer and the? family-owned store proprietor will suffer the consequences of that hubris. No one can say precisely how much implementing AB 32 will cost, other than that it will easily reach tens of billions of dollars. But looming regulations and carbon taxes give firms with tight margins ample reason to leave the state in the years ahead.
A little-noticed draft report circulated in December by the California Air Resources Board offers a candid hint of what’s coming. While estimating that the state could raise up to $143 billion in carbon allowance fees, the report says the downside will be higher prices for fuel, energy and food. Climate policy could “negatively impact businesses, particularly businesses whose products are highly energy intensive” — manufacturers, in other words. And, by the way, the law “may cause distress by displacing some workers.” No kidding.
As for saving the world from the ravages of climate change, state regulators make no guarantees.
None of these initiatives would be necessary if California had a responsible Legislature and a courageous governor. Deliberative democracy, the sausage-making of legislating, is a tricky business. It requires more precise tools than ballot measures can offer. For conservative voters, disdainful of liberal Democratic politicians and lately disenchanted with many Republicans, this election should underscore the basic weakness of the initiative process.
This is no way to run a republic. But it will have to do in a pinch.
Ben Boychuk is a fellow of the Claremont Institute’s Golden State Center for State and Local Government. (https://www.claremont.org.)