Democracy Run Amok? An Excess of Ballot Initiatives Plagues California

By Los Angeles Times Editorial Board 
First published by the L.A. Times, April 4, 2004

Editor’s note: Ballot initiatives theoretically allow democracy to happen in its purest form. But what happens when anyone with a sufficient bank account — from self-serving corporations to publicly-minded activists — can spend their pet issue onto the state ballot? We don’t have a pat answer to the problems explored in this editorial. What do you think? If you’d like to learn more about ballot initiatives and referendums, visit ballotwatch.org. 

Direct democracy is running amok in California. Three propositions already are qualified for the Nov. 2 general election ballot, three initiatives have enough signatures and are awaiting official certification, and 40 others are still being circulated. Not all will make the ballot, probably including a proposal to require the state to establish a population-control program. Another would allow use of the Bible as a textbook in public schools. But an unusually large number of proposals have substantial backing from reputable groups like the state Chamber of Commerce, statewide organizations of California cities and counties, individual state legislators and activist organizations. They are paying millions to get the signatures needed to make the November ballot. Many will succeed.

This may be good for their causes, but it’s bad for California. It would be one thing if these were true grass-roots uprisings by the voters to right evils created in Sacramento. But that day is long past. The current crop of initiatives is an unhealthy flowering of special interests using their money to gain advantage in state government, including the earmarking of billions of dollars in tax funds for narrow uses. Ballot-box budgeting may help their individual causes – and many of them are worthy – but they diminish the ability of the governor and the Legislature to distribute state funds in a balanced way to meet as many needs as possible.

There’s only one course left to stem the ballot-clogging tide. Say no. Turn away from the clipboard-laden folding tables at supermarkets and on street corners. Decline to sign, no matter how alluringly the cause is described. Between now and April 16 – the deadline for gathering initiative signatures for the Nov. 2 ballot – it will be difficult to go to any public spot without stumbling over people collecting signatures of registered voters for up to $3.50 per name, more than triple the amount just a few years ago.

Especially odious are two competing measures to vastly increase casino gambling. Another would simplistically cut back the workers’ compensation program, a complex issue that should be worked out in the Legislature, not at the ballot box.

One tax measure already on the ballot, co-sponsored by Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), would levy a 1% income tax surcharge on millionaires to raise about $600 million a year earmarked for mental health services.

Another, still in circulation, would add a telephone bill surcharge of more than $500 million to pay for emergency medical care. A third, sponsored by actor Rob Reiner, would raise property taxes on businesses by an estimated $6 billion a year to pay for universal preschool for children, boost teacher salaries and buy textbooks.

Any reasonable person would want to put more money into those programs. But every dollar diverted to those interests is a dollar unavailable for child care or aid to the poor and disabled, or for solving the state’s transportation problems.

Ballot-box legislating – often swayed by false or misleading advertising – is no way to run a state of 36 million people and such diverse needs.

© 2004 Los Angeles Times

Related Feature: Corporations Taking the (Ballot) Initiative