Op-Ed: Is The State’s Initiative Process Ripe For Reform?

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Nell McCombs of Ventura is committee chairman for the League of Women Voters of Ventura County's study of the California initiative and referendum process.

The initiative process was adopted by the California electorate in 1911, and was intended to allow the public direct access to the legislative process and overcome the influence of special interests.

The process seems to have been needed as within three years of adoption (1914), 17 voter-placed initiatives appeared on the ballot.

Over the next six decades, initiatives were somewhat rarely used, averaging just 2.5 qualified initiatives per year. And of those that did qualify, only 25 percent met with voter approval.

The number of initiatives qualified for the ballot steadily grew from about 4.5 per year in the 1970s to nearly 13 in the 2000s. A divided state government had resulted in legislative deadlock and frustrated citizens and special interests sought to bypass the Legislature.

Another change in the process has been the commercialization of the initiative process.

Originally intended as a way for citizen voters to access the government structure to address perceived problems, it has become a commercial enterprise from signature gathering to large-scale funding. Spending on initiative campaigns had risen by 750 percent peaking in the 2006 general election only to be surpassed by the recent election in fall 2012.

Professional petitioning has always been an aspect of the process in California, but the steady and rapid increase of the state's population aided in the expansion of the business.

Few initiatives have been launched purely by volunteers, and just placing an initiative on recent ballots can cost $3 million. There is widespread public speculation that with enough money, any party could get any proposition on the ballot.

Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, said: "Hiram Johnson would probably be turning over in his grave, since he gave us the initiative process to fight the railroad barons. There has been no ballot in modern history with this type of concentration of millionaire and billionaire wealth behind it. If this was a reality TV show, we'd call it the billionaire ballot."

Special-interest initiatives can result in reducing or redirecting state revenues. Proposition 4, passed in 1979, prevents state government from collecting a surplus, dictating that all excess revenue must be returned to taxpayers.

Three years later, Propositions 5 and 6 were passed abolishing the state inheritance and gift taxes. In 1988, Proposition 98 mandated 40 percent of the state's general fund be dedicated to K-14 schools.

Proposition 42, passed in 2002, requires all motor fuel sales taxes and usage taxes be dedicated to transportation spending. Proposition 49, also passed in 2002, mandates state funding for after-school programs without an additional revenue source.

Also, initiatives approved by voters without "sunset limits" require yet another initiative at a future date to change existing legislation.

So, is the California initiative and referendum process ripe for reform? Do you think the original purpose behind the 1911 ballot measure to give the citizens of California a tool they could use to adopt laws and constitutional amendments has lost its effectiveness? What ideas do you have to improve the process?

On Feb. 9, the League of Women Voters of Ventura County will host a forum, featuring guest speakers who will address some of these issues.

Among them are: Joe Mathews, co-author of "California Crack Up: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It"; Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause; and former Ventura County Assemblyman Cameron Smyth.

The public is urged to attend and participate in this very timely forum.

Where: Courtyard by Marriott, 600 S. Esplanade Drive, Oxnard.

When: Saturday, Feb. 9, from 9:30 a.m. to noon.

Who: Guest speakers Joe Mathews, co-author of "California Crack Up: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It"; Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause; and former Assemblyman Cameron Smyth.


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