Taking the Initiative

Jan 29, 2011 No Comments

By Tom Hughes

“All political power is inherent in the people. Government is instituted for their protection, security, and benefit, and they have the right to alter or reform it when the public good may require.” – California Constitution, Article 2, Section 1

Two aspects of California’s state flag are wildly misrepresentative of our state. The first is the California grizzly bear, the last of which was shot in 1922 (much to the chagrin of contemporary Cal students, I’m sure). The second is the term “Republic.” Not only are the days of California’s short-lived national independence a thing of the distant past, but the Golden State’s supposedly republican system of government, in which elected officials make decisions on behalf of their constituents, is at least endangered.

In 1911, at the height of the progressive movement in California, voters adopted three major changes to the state government: the initiative (by which a proposed law or constitutional amendment can be submitted to the voters), the referendum (by which laws already passed by the legislature can be submitted to the voters for their approval), and the recall (by which any state officer can be removed by the voters for any reason and replaced with a movie star). Californians of the early 20th century enacted these measures as a foil to the perceived corruption in California politics, epitomized by the control of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company.

The importance of direct democracy in California has been magnified greatly in the past century, rivaling, if not eclipsing, the role played by the state legislature. Nine initiatives qualified for the ballot in the 1960’s. Between 2000 and 2009, voters casted their ballots on 114 initiatives; they voted on five more this June and face ten more in November. Those that have passed have been both trivial and history-making, mundane and controversial, beloved, detested, challenged, and regretted by Californians of every political stripe. Here are a few that have attracted massive statewide, and often nationwide, attention:

Prop. 13 (1978): Limits property taxes to 1% of value, imposes two-thirds legislative requirement for raising taxes. One of the major reasons for California’s budget crises, because it restricts revenue, especially on corporations owning large amounts of land that can avoid reassessment. Combined with a two-thirds requirement to pass a budget, this also prevents the state legislature’s majority (read: Democrats) from doing any significant budgeting without major concessions to an ideologically tax-averse minority (read: Republicans), leading to an overly complicated budget process (read: clusterf*ckery).

Prop. 209 (1996): Bans affirmative action in public employment, education, and contracting. The consequences of this initiative are still debated to this day, especially on UC campuses, which have race-blind admissions as a result. The California Supreme Court reaffirmed Prop 209’s constitutionality in August.

Prop. 215 (1996): Legalizes marijuana for medical use. Marijuana for any use is still illegal under federal law. Although the DEA under the Bush administration cracked down repeatedly on medical marijuana in California, the Obama administration has taken a much more lenient stance. Prop. 19, on the November ballot, seeks to fully “legalize it” for the entire adult populace.

Prop. 8 (2008): Bans same-sex marriage. After the highest-funded campaign for any state ballot initiative in US history, a slim majority of voters chose to override a ruling by the California Supreme court and eliminate the rights of a minority. Prop. 8, California’s most notorious initiative of the last decade, is currently working its way through the federal court system after it was declared a violation of the equal protection clause of the US Constitution in August.

With the ability to modify their state’s laws and their constitution (the third longest in the world) whenever and however they see fit, Californians have incredible power over civil rights, the state budget, and the election process. Does this lead to more responsibility and accountability in California government or are those positive effects offset by the evils of discrimination, ignorance, and special interest deception? There is no definite answer to this question, but California’s crippling structural problems are no secret, and it may take a collective “Eureka!” moment about the benefits and burdens of direct democracy to pull the Golden State back from the brink.

Fall 2010

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