Take the Initiative, Please: Referendum Madness in California

now the best chicken-and-egg argument in California politics is: Which
came first, the unresponsiveness, arrogance, and incompetence of California's
elected politicians or the orgy of initiatives designed to bypass cretin
government and set things straight? What's certain is that ever since the
passage of Proposition 13, the mother of all latter-day tax revolts, in
June 1978, the state has been locked into a vicious cycle in which each
plebiscitary reform, by either mandating or prohibiting certain policies,
has sharply reduced the discretion of elected officials. This, in turn,
has made it still harder for local and state government to respond to new
problems, thus bringing still more pressure for extraordinary ballot measures.
In November, there will be another turn of the wheel-and a big one at that-with
consequences that will reverberate far beyond the Sierras.

Californians approved only two initiatives in the 1950s and three in
the 1960s. In the 1970s, they approved 7; in the 1980s, the total reached
21; and so far 15 have already been approved in the 1990s, with a dozen
more on the ballot for this November and the whole 1998 cycle still to
come. Many of the recently enacted measures go to the very heart of the
governmental process: tax and spending limits; legislative term limits;
a minimum-spending formula requiring the legislature to spend at least
40 percent of the state's general fund for public schools; a variety of
costly tough-on-crime mandatory-sentencing bills, including a sweeping
three-strikes law (which was passed even after the legislature had already
passed an identical law); Proposition 187 (so far blocked by the courts),
which would deny schooling and other public services to illegal immigrants;
a set of measures requiring the state to issue bonds for specified park,
conservation, and public transit projects; a law regulating auto insurance;
another regulating the use and labeling of toxic materials; and yet another
raising the tobacco tax to fund antismoking campaigns and support research
on smoking-related diseases; and many more.

It was the leaders of the California tax revolt, Howard Jarvis and Paul
Gann, and their consultants who pioneered the use of the new campaign technologies
in getting their antitax measures on the ballot-targeted direct mail campaigns,
market testing of initiative proposals, the use of paid signature gatherers,
who now earn as much as $1.50 for each of the million or so signatures
required to get a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot, the
linking of fundraising with signature gathering-but it didn't take environmentalists
and other groups on the left long to catch up, and to invent a few wrinkles
of their own. Anyone can play this game, though for reasons that should
be obvious, the biggest players these days tend to be industry and professional
groups-insurance, tobacco, trial lawyers.

Given the political and financial effectiveness of these techniques,
it shouldn't be surprising that there will be at least a dozen more initiatives
on the state's November ballot: the already influential California Civil
Rights Initiative (CCRI), which would bar race or gender preferences in
public employment, contracting, and education; a labor-sponsored initiative
raising the state's minimum wage; two competing campaign finance reform
proposals, one from Common Cause, the other from Ralph Nader's Public Interest
Research Group (PIRG), the latter containing a poison pill designed to
destroy the former if PIRG's initiative passes; two lawyer-sponsored measures
regulating (and blocking more severe restrictions on) attorneys' fees,
one of them an open sesame to virtually unlimited securities fraud lawsuits;
a sweeping measure to prohibit all local taxes and fees not specifically
authorized by voters; another regulating HMOs; and still another legalizing
the medical use of marijuana.

is new, or relatively new, is that, contrary to traditional patterns in
this country, California's down-ballot measures are increasingly influencing-and
being consciously used in attempts to influence-the races at the top of
the ticket: They draw certain kinds of voters to the polls and they can
be deployed to exploit the weaknesses of opponents. Cali fornia Governor
Pete Wilson got a reputation as a political genius by successfully using
the three-strikes initiative and Proposition 187 as political wedges against
Democrat Kathleen Brown in his 1994 gubernatorial re-election campaign-the
polls showed that Brown's opposition to 187 damaged her-just as he had
used various tough-on-crime initiatives in prior elections. Clearly that's
the tactic Republicans had in mind this year when they raised $450,000
to put CCRI on the 1996 ballot: Had things gone right, CCRI might not only
have been the fatal wedge dividing the Democratic coalition-minorities
and civil rights groups on one side, Reagan Democrats and other blue-collar
voters on the other-but it might also have denied California's crucial
54 electoral votes to Bill Clinton, thereby determining the outcome of
the presidential election itself.

In the past six months, CCRI has lost a great deal of its political
luster. Wilson, who tried last fall and winter to use immigration and affirmative
action in his short-lived presidential campaign, went down in flames. Business
groups conspicuously (though not surprisingly) stayed away from the initiative,
and Bob Dole, who had jumped on the anti-affirmative action bandwagon a
year ago, began to shy away from it. (The reason may have less to do with
race than with the mounting focus of CCRI opponents on the gender issue,
where Dole continues to be particularly vulnerable.) He, too, had been
a backer of affirmative action, he told a television interviewer recently;
now, he said, "I think there are some changes that should be made."
To some on the right, that sounded suspiciously like "mend but don't
end it." CCRI is still likely to pass-all the polls still have it
leading by roughly 60 percent to 35 percent-but its potential as a wedge
seems to have declined considerably, a classic case of something whose
support is a mile wide and an inch deep. A few weeks ago the same California
Republicans who ponied up the money to get CCRI on the ballot couldn't
muster enough votes even from their own members to get a CCRI facsimile
out of the GOP-controlled State Assembly.

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But this does not mean these initiatives have lost their political effectiveness.
Here's where the left seems to have learned from the right. As CCRI's potential
for drawing conservative voters to the polls appears to shrink, two liberal
measures-the labor-sponsored initiative raising the minimum wage in California
to $5.75 over the next two years, and a proposal, backed by public employee
groups, to raise the marginal tax rates on high incomes from 9.5 percent
to 11 percent-may do for Democrats some of what CCRI was supposed to do
for Republicans: get marginal or indifferent Democratic voters to vote
in what they would otherwise have considered to be an unimportant election,
and force Republicans to choose between their business constituents and
those angry white males.

Other initiatives might also have potent effects. The Right to Vote
on Taxes Act, sponsored by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the
group started by (and now named for) the curmudgeonly patron saint of the
tax revolt, could bring out the still formidable residue of California's
antitax movement, tens of thousands of cranky people chafing at the higgledy-piggledy
system of developer fees, utility taxes, lighting assessments, and the
various other property assessments and levies that cities and other local
agencies have contrived to get around the tax limitations imposed by Proposition
13 and its successors. In effect the measure, which would be added to the
California constitution, would require a popular vote, either by majority
or supermajority depending on the nature of the tax, on any new local levy.
It would, in addition, eliminate a number of existing exactions if they
are not ratified by local majorities and it would absolutely prohibit using
fees for any purposes other than what they are imposed for. Some local
officials say, perhaps with more than a touch of hyperbole, that if the
Right to Vote on Taxes Act is passed, it will make the effects of Proposition
13 "look like a picnic."

It's now 85 years since Hiram Johnson and his fellow Progressives managed
to write the initiative, referendum, and recall into the California constitution
as a means of checking the power of "the interests"-specifically
the Southern Pacific Railroad-and their lackeys in the legislature. But
Johnson could hardly have imagined how that device, harnessed to modern
campaign technologies, could be used by the very politicians and interests
it was meant to check. A few years ago, the state's Planning and Conservation
League, pushing an environmentalist bond initiative to fund more rail and
other public transit, got $500,000 for its campaign from that same Southern
Pacific, which expected to get some of the bond money so that it could
upgrade its tracks with public money. In 1988 the insurance industry spent
$88 million on five California auto insurance initiatives, more than George
Bush spent on his entire presidential campaign.

But the more important development is the way the initiative, which
for a half century was regarded as an extraordinary expedient available
in the rare cases of serious legislative failure or abuse, has not just
been integrated into the regular governmental-political system, but has
begun to replace it. Some students of California government think it's
easier to amend the state constitution by initiative than to approve budgets
or raise taxes, both of which require two-thirds votes in the legislature.
Whether or not that's correct, the initiative has by general agreement
become the principal driver of policy in California, sometimes for the
good, but more often not. The cumulative effect of the plebiscitary reforms
of the past two decades has been to strip cities, school districts, and
especially counties of their ability to generate their own funds; to divide
authority and responsibility uncertainly between state and local government
and among scores of agencies; and to make it increasingly unclear who is
ultimately accountable for the results of all these changes. That has put
ever more emphasis on plebiscitary democracy-both as a device and as political
ethic-to cut through the gridlock and confusion. And as each measure adds
its mandates, takes money (in a process known as ballot-box budgeting)
out of the budget and sets it aside for special purposes, or otherwise
restricts legislative choices, it becomes still harder for voters to know
whom to hold accountable and what rascals to throw out-which of course
is one reason that voters enacted term limits, and thus made certain that
every few years they all get thrown out.

Which brings us back to November 1996. While it's still far too early
to know how the down-ballot issues will influence the election, there's
no doubt that they have become an increasing factor in the calculations
and plans of California politicians. Where else in America do state-level
candidates not only campaign on initiatives but, as Wilson and former Democratic
Lieutenant Governor Leo McCarthy have done, sponsor them as platform vehicles
on which to run? Clearly that was the plan when Wilson and his political
ally, Sacramento businessman Ward Connerly, went all out earlier this year
to get CCRI on the ballot, and when Wilson embraced Proposition 187, the
immigration initiative, and Proposition 184, the three-strikes measure,
in 1994. Just as clearly the minimum-wage measure has been-and will be-a
crucial part of the Democrats' strategic calculations this year. The results
of these down-ballot contests might not just reverberate around the nation,
as they occasionally have in the past; if the race tightens, they could
determine the next president of the United States.

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