Illustration by Joe Lai.
Illustration by Joe Lai.

You’re on your way to the bookstore and you look up. After scanning the crowd, you make eye contact. You frantically try to think of an alternate route but it’s too late. They’ve spotted you.

“This is democracy in action,” said one anonymous petitioner in downtown Santa Cruz, trying to garner signatures to legalize marijuana.

The initiative process has given us low property taxes, full prisons and a ban on affirmative action. It’s expanded welfare for chickens and made marriage illegal for same sex couples. Lesser known though, is the fact that this familiar process has had a profound impact on the financial turmoil of our state’s budget as well as the shaky state of the education system.

Today a significant portion of California’s state budget is pre-determined because of voter-passed initiatives. When legislators have to make cuts because of falling revenue, they are forced to take funding from higher education and social services, some of the only parts of the budget that aren’t protected by voter passed initiatives.

For better or for worse, ballot initiatives, often referred to as “the fourth arm” of California government, have made the state what it is today by giving ordinary citizens the power to make law.

The idea that voters should be able to create their own laws, rather than rely on the legislature, wasn’t always a part of American politics. The idea of a direct democracy, rather than the representative democracy that exists at the federal level, didn’t arise until the Progressive movement of the early 1900s.

Daniel Wirls is chair of UCSC’s Politics Department and specializes in American politics.

“The idea was, if you could somehow take important decision-making and put it elsewhere, give it to some other group, you could break up these [political] machines’ power,” Wirls said. “Whether it was a good thing or a bad thing in the end is another question.”

Options are Limited

In order to pass an initiative, voters have to gather an amount of signatures equal to either five or eight percent of the voting population of the last governor’s election, depending on whether the proposal is a statute or a constitutional amendment.

Ryan Coonerty, a Santa Cruz city councilmember and lecturer in the politics department at UCSC, feels that the system created by initiatives is largely to blame for the state’s recent divestment in education and social programs.

“It’s not that people don’t support higher education,” says Coonerty, “In fact, I don’t think there’s a member of either party who just wants to cut opportunities for higher education, but they’re operating in a system where they’re not given any other choice.”

Assemblyman Bill Monning represents California’s 27th district, which includes Santa Cruz. Monning said that the lawmakers are left with few options in times of budgetary stress.

“Some of the fixed budget costs indeed support very important valuable programs [like K-12 and community college education], but the changing revenue of the state in the time of recession — where there’s no new revenue, there’s no cushion — can create very tough positions for the legislature,” Monning explained.

Prop 13 and the Initiative Revolution

Proposition 13, passed in 1978, was known as the beginning of the taxpayer’s revolt in the United States. The measure drastically limited property taxes in California and passed with almost 65 percent of the vote.

Limiting property taxes made it easier for Californians to stay in their homes, but it also drastically cut down the amount of money that was available for education spending, as property taxes are one of the main sources of funding for education in California. Prop 13 also imposed a rule that two-thirds supermajority of the legislature had to approve any tax increase, as well as the yearly budget, in order for it to pass.

Jessica Levinson is the director of political reform at the University of Southern California’s bipartisan Center for Governmental Studies, which analyzes government practices. She explained that requiring a supermajority in a state as large as California allows for a small group of lawmakers to squash any new tax, even when it might be favored by over 50 percent of Californians.

“There are only two other states that have the two-thirds requirement [to pass a tax] and those are Arkansas and Rhode Island — together Arkansas and Rhode Island have roughly the population of L.A. city,” she said. “I think that we really need to re-evaluate the wisdom of such a high threshold [for passing taxes] in a state that is as large and populous as California.”

In the 1980s Californians voted on 62 initiatives, as voters were attempting to secure funds for a wider array of programs and services. In 1988, Prop 98 guaranteed a portion of the budget to K-14 education, which includes K-12 education and two years of community college. In addition, several propositions passed to guarantee funding to state parks, roads and infrastructure, and after-school programs.

In 1994 Prop 184, or “the three strikes law,” was approved by the voters and increased prison populations. This contributed to California’s current practice of spending more than six times more money per prison inmate than per student in the public education system.

Coonerty believes that initiatives have protected valuable causes, but have also encumbered the state during difficult times, and excluded other important programs like education.

The Future of the Initiative in California

Most citizens of California are hyperaware of that fact that the state is in a budget crisis, and yet it is not always as apparent that initiatives have played a part in this crisis.

As a law maker, Assmeblyman Monning believes that the supermajority requirement of Prop 13, as well as other propositions, have contributed to the budget problems.

“I personally believe that the two-thirds threshold encumbers the state of California from effectively dealing with the massive challenges we face,” Monning said. “It would be in my opinion the most important reform to have budgets brought in on time, and to have the California budget reflect the will of the majority of Californian voters who’ve elected a majority in both houses.”

Despite evidence that voter-passed initiatives have gridlocked the California budget and government, the popularity of the initiative process has grown since 2006.

As of 2008, six in 10 Californians, regardless of party affiliation, trusted public policy decisions made by the voters to be better than those made by the legislature or the governor, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

Although 24 states have the initiative process, few make it as easy for citizens to pass laws and amend the constitution as California does. Levinson, of the Center for Governmental Studies, thinks that California voters feel that the initiative process sets them apart from residents of other states.

“Californians have always seen ourselves as a progressive bellwether state and I think that the fact that we have the initiative process plays into our view of ourselves as an active citizenry,” Levinson said.

Sharon, a petitioner gathering signatures for a marijuana legalization initiative in downtown Santa Cruz who wished not to reveal her full name, agreed that the process is important for Californians.

“I think the petition process is important because it shows people that their vote is important. People are more informed,” she said.

Levinson feels that despite potential budget issues caused by the initiative process, it will remain important as tool for voters to pass laws that are unpopular with the legislature. It provides a pathway for laws that have an important purpose but that politicians would be unlikely to vote for out of self-protection, such as campaign finance and redistricting reforms.

“I think that the key to it is to make sure that the initiative serves the purposes it was intended to,” Levinson said.

The Ballot’s Role in Reform

Despite the fact that the initiative process is partly to blame for California’s budgetary woes, it is also the most likely way that state will be able to fix its problems.

Unless otherwise specified, legislators cannot overturn a voter-passed law. Therefore, aside from the initiative, the only other path to reform of the state’s gridlocked governance system would be a constitutional convention. This entails a complicated process.

As Levinson explained, the California constitution is longer than the United States constitution, and those of most countries today.

“It’s one of the largest governing documents that any government has right now,” said Levinson. “It’s been amended 512 times.”

Nevertheless, Levinson reflects the feelings of many Californians when she says that reform is needed.

“Whether we do it initiative by initiative, or whether we do it through a constitutional convention, I think that the larger comprehensive governmental reforms that the constitutional convention could address are very important for Californians for a whole to look at,” she said.

Among many initiative proposals currently circulating for the 2010 ballot is a law that would change the requirement to pass a tax from two-thirds to three-fifths, or 60 percent. There are also two initiatives that would begin the process of calling a constitutional convention.

Other propositions for 2010 are as diverse as a law to make divorce illegal in California, a proposition that would require schools to provide an opportunity for children to sing Christmas songs near the holidays, and three related to marijuana legalization and taxation.

Among multitudes of initiatives, Ryan Coonerty shares many people’s hope that reform will come soon.

“It just has to be fixed,” he said, “because right now the state is headed towards collapse and there’s actually very little our elected officials can do about it.”