Good, bad and ugly initiatives

Jan. 5, 2010:

Any reform that will actually help fix the ongoing California government’s fiscal mess (serious spending limits, pension reform, limits on union power, cutbacks in the size of state government, educational privatization, etc.) cannot possibly pass, given political realities. Anything that can actually pass will not fix anything – or might make things worse. We’re in a pickle, and it’s unclear how it will all play out.

Hence, as I’ve noted before, most of the current ideas revolve around the elimination of the two-thirds legislative vote requirement to pass budgets and raise taxes. Many people – including business leaders who should know better – think that giving Democrats carte blanche to raise taxes will fix things. Oh right. Another idea – to make it tougher for California voters to pass initiatives – comes up routinely, but all these ideas evade the real problems faced by the state.

The problem with the latter idea is that without the often-abused and frequently troubling initiative process, Californians are left wholly dependent on their legislators to pass reforms. In my view, the voters tend to do a better job than the legislators, although that’s not saying a heck of a lot. Of course, the latest slate of initiatives circulating for the November 2010 ballot might give initiative-reform advocates more than their share of ammunition. There are some doozies on this list.

It’s cheap to begin circulating initiatives ($250) but costs around $2 million to seriously qualify one for the ballot. It can cost tens of millions of dollars to wage a winning statewide initiative campaign. So there’s no sense taking too many of these seriously at this point, but a number of the circulating initiatives posted on the California Secretary of State website no doubt have serious interest-group money behind them.

Here’s a quick preview of the scariest California initiatives that have been approved for circulation – you may see scruffy-looking people collecting signatures at a grocery store near you for some of these (for $1 to $2 a pop!):

Ending free speech as we know it: The California Citizens Initiative would "hold candidates for public office, government officials and employees, and members of the media criminally liable for intentionally making a false statement of ‘material fact’ about legislative acts, elections for public office, or the employment or dismissal of government employees." This has a nearly zero chance of becoming law, but it’s a shocker. If a candidate or journalist misrepresents a fact, then they could face two to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 to $500,000 fine. This would essentially shut down free speech in California, given that any allegation about public officials or government workers could lead to a costly court battle to determine whether the speaker or writer committed a crime.

Drug testing for legislators: Another proposal would require "all legislators elected subsequent to the passage of this initiative to be tested for the illegal use of drugs and the ‘habitual use of alcohol.’ Prevents a legislator who tests positive from performing his or her official duties or from getting paid until that legislator completes a substance abuse program at his or her own expense." This is another low-probability initiative designed to exploit honest frustration at elected officials, who gleefully mandate all sorts of measures dealing with the public, but often seem to exempt themselves from similar things. If passed, this would wreak havoc on the bar scene in Sacramento.

Chasing out remaining wealth producers: California government has basically been at war with wealth producers and businesses, much to the benefit of Nevada and other neighboring states. A wealth-tax initiative that "imposes [a] one-time tax of at least 55 percent on property in California exceeding $6.7 million if single" would put the final nail in the coffin. Of course, all those nasty rich people would be sure to high-tail it out of state before the initiative goes into effect, given that it also "imposes one-time tax … on income exceeding $10 million when resident dies or leaves California." Socialism at its finest, but this is too Soviet-esque even for Californians.

No more divorce in California: The initiative would ban divorce but still allow annulments. This is perhaps the funniest proposed initiative, something that would probably wreak more havoc in the state than anything else. It’s clearly meant as a joke – an opportunity by supporters of gay marriage to point out the perils of deciding marriage-related issues in the voting booth. My vote would be to separate marriage and state and leave the government out of all such decisions.

You must sing Christmas carols: Here’s another one designed to make a point rather than become law, but one that might actually move forward – a mandate that public schools "offer an opportunity for students to listen to or perform Christmas music during the holiday season." I’m all for Christmas music, and have no problem with it being performed at my kids’ schools, but this is mostly pointless symbolism. (Yet another initiative "exempts speech based on biblical authority from existing constitutional and statutory restrictions applicable to all other speech …" which would ignite bitter church-state battles.) The real answer is to separate school and state and let people send their kids to the schools that best reflect their values (and we parents should pay for our own kids’ schooling rather than use the state to pay for it), not to wage these religious fights over school curriculum.

There are plenty of serious and scary ones circulating also – such as those mandating a constitutional convention, reducing the two-thirds legislative vote requirement to pass taxes and budgets and imposing more restrictive term limits on legislators.

There are some good ones designed to limit public-sector union power and reduce pensions for new government employees. That’s life in the world of initiatives, where the good, bad and the silly can all vie for the public’s attention. It’s a bad system, but correcting it will surely make things worse.

-Steven Greenhut

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