A series of bills pending in California’s state legislature would severely curtail the use of voters’ initiatives and referenda—and have already sparked a long-overdue debate about the virtues of direct democracy. Advocates for reform make some valid points about the problems with the initiative process; it’s certainly the case that legislators and special interests have found ways over the years to abuse it. But those flaws notwithstanding, the current proposals for reform should disturb anyone who wants to keep a check on the legislature’s excesses.
Democratic assemblyman Mike Gatto of Burbank has put forth several far-reaching proposals to restrict the initiative and referendum. Chief among them is Assembly Constitutional Amendment 6, which would require “initiatives that spend money or create a new program or mandate to identify and specify the funding to pay for it.” Gatto and his fellow Democrats insist that the measure, if approved, would apply only to initiatives that created new programs, but Republicans and taxpayer groups worry that it would also apply to tax-cutting initiatives. The bill’s language seems to confirm their fears: “This measure would prohibit an initiative measure that the Legislative Analyst or the Director of Finance determines would result in a net increase in state or local government costs exceeding $5,000,000, other than costs attributable to the issuance, sale, or repayment of bonds, from being submitted to the electors or having any effect unless the Legislative Analyst, the Director of Finance, or both, as applicable, determine that the initiative measure provides for additional revenues in an amount that meets or exceeds the net increase in costs.” The legislation is expected to come to the floor on Thursday, though with amendments that allow only the legislative analyst to determine whether an initiative meets the financial threshold and that make it clearer that the legislation applies only to new programs.
Other Gatto bills would empower the legislature to modify initiative language and impose new supermajority requirements for certifying an initiative. The consequence of all these measures would be to reduce dramatically California voters’ ability to place initiatives on the ballot. Yet another reform measure, SB 448—this one authored by Concord Democrat Mark DeSaulnier, a close ally of public-sector unions—is simply a harassment bill: it would require signature-gatherers to wear signs with big letters declaring whether they’re paid workers or volunteers, as well as whether they’re registered to vote and where. It remains alive in the legislature.
What’s wrong with reining in an initiative process that critics on both left and right properly call “ballot-box budgeting”—in which voters tie the legislature’s hands by mandating various budget items? “Particularly harmful are popularly approved mandatory spending requirements, such as the requirement that the state spend approximately 40 percent of its revenues each year on education,” Troy Senik has written in City Journal, referring to Prop. 98, which voters passed in 1988. Joe Mathews and Mark Paul of the “radical centrist” New America Foundation, meanwhile, explain that “California doesn’t have one governing system, it has three systems. These three systems are at war with each other: an election system designed to produce governing majorities, a consensus-based legislative system that amounts to minority rule, and an inflexible system of direct democracy that trumps the first two systems. California doesn’t work because it can’t work.”
There is, of course, some irony in the frustration of modern-day progressives like Mathews and Paul with a system of direct democracy that emerged from Progressive-era efforts to break the power of railroads and other special interests. Today’s liberals have good reason to be annoyed, since the handiwork of the early twentieth-century liberals usually ends up empowering California’s conservatives. “One of history’s little jokes is that these rebukes [of the governing class by the initiative process] have, more often than not, been defeats for the bien-pensant liberals who are the descendants of California’s Progressives,” William Voegeli writes in The Claremont Review of Books. “In the last three decades the voters have rejected unlimited property tax increases; public services for illegal immigrants, no questions asked; affirmative action; bilingual education; and same-sex marriage.”
The clear goal of the current reform efforts, championed by unions and liberal Democratic politicians, is to remove power from the people—who often vote for such crazy things as tax cuts, immigration reform, and tough-on-crime measures—and shift it back to California’s elected officials, who are as beholden to special interests today as their predecessors were a century ago. Constraining the initiative process would mean, for example, constraining voters’ power to reform pensions or impose a hard cap on state spending. It’s difficult to imagine legislators’ doing either of those things when union forces show up en masse at committee hearings to protest even the most modest reforms. So while conservatives may be right in identifying serious problems with the progressive experiment in direct democracy, they should be careful about embracing reforms that would remove the one tool that can save California from a completely unconstrained government.