Special Interests Run Amuck in California

Almost exactly one century ago, almost 2/3 of California voters approved Governor Hiram Johnson’s progressive reform amendments introducing the initiative, referendum and recall, allowing voters to override special interest dominance in Sacramento. Now, Democrats are seeking to restrict initiatives, supposedly in the interests of voters. 

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Exhibit A is SB 202. Originally raising raised the filing fee for ballot initiatives, an end of session “gut and amend” transformed it to only allow ballot initiatives at November general elections and explicitly delay consideration of ACA 4 until 2014. Then rammed through with virtually no scrutiny, it now sits on Governor Brown’s desk.

Sponsor Loni Hancock said “Low turnout elections do not represent the needs, priorities and desires of the larger electorate.” State Senate leader Darrell Steinberg claimed that the intent was to making the results more representative of Californians by assuring the highest voter turnout.  However, there are several reasons to question that claim.

First is the fact that SB 202 was a last-minute gut and amend bill, designed to evade the usual legislative procedures and prevent virtually any input by Californians.  Bills commanding the necessary consensus can pass in the light, allowing accountability to voters.  When legislative power brokers so blatantly abuse the legislative process, preventing diligent deliberation, it is not to better represent Californians.

Second, SB 202 includes a provision clearly at odds with “we just want initiatives to work better” claims.  A proposed state spending cap and reserve fund measure (ACA 4)  Legislative Democrats agreed to place on the June 2012 ballot, to get enough Republican support for the recent budget deal, was delayed until at least November 2014.  You would not delay voters their chance to vote two years past the 2012 general election if you wanted to better represent their interests. That only guarantees that the Legislature can ignore their preferences two years longer. And allowing one party to renege after the fact on legislative agreements does not make government work better for Californians.

Third, besides stalling ACA 4 and keeping an initiative to curb union political donations off the June ballot, which might affect 2012 elections, SB 202 is part of series of proposed curbs on the initiative process. Journalist Michael Mishak reports that “One measure would allow the Legislature to propose changes that would appear on the ballot alongside an initiative even if its sponsor rejected them.  Another would give the Legislature the right to amend or repeal initiatives that pass, after four years have gone by.” Such “reforms” cannot be defended as enabling Californians’ will to be done more effectively.

Fourth, “justice delayed is justice denied.” Say the frenzied end of the 2012 legislative session generates an egregious abuse they want to overturn. Given the filing deadlines and the time required for initiative campaign, under SB 202, It could not be reversed until November of 2014, more than two years and an entire legislative term later. Even then, other proposed restrictions could let the Legislature reverse it four years later.

Fifth, while Democrats claim higher turnouts from restricting initiatives to November elections would better represent Californians’ will, the effect may be in the other direction.  It would create very long ballots, which create real problems.  Dan Walters writes that It would “make it hard for each initiative to get the attention and scrutiny it needs,” which would make things worse. It would also increase the proportion of “low information voters,” who are least informed and most easily swayed by misleading campaigns.

Hiram Johnson argued that “nearly every governmental problem…has arisen because some private interest has intervened or has sought for its own gain to exploit either the resources or the politics of the State.” SB 202 shows that, a century later, Californians have at least as much to fear from the Democrats who dominate Sacramento as any private interest.

(Gary Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University)


  1. crisscross says

    These are the same special interest strategies and goals the unions employ to game the system, progressively changing the rules in their incessant campaigns to marginalize and repudiate the voters, and it happens at all levels, from contentious statewide elections to supposedly nonpartisan local elections.

  2. Bill Saracino says

    Chanelling my inner Claude Raines, I am shocked, SHOCKED, that the Democrats are trying to rig the system. And let’s use the right temrinology – – these are not “special interests” – – they are liberal Democrat legislators. Until the GOP becomes competitive again, the initiative is the only thing the Democrats have to fear – – so they move to tip the scales in their favor. Also interesting is that the GOP is not raising hell about the 2 year delay in the spending cap measure – which was the ONLY reason any Republicans voted for ther recent budget deal. The GOP’s legislative stance ought to be pretty simple: Put the spending cap on the June, ’12 ballot or nothing – NOTHING – requiring any Republicans votes will pass.

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