Take the Initiative, Please: Referendum Madness in California

By 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.

What 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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