Monday, November 2, 2009
IN MY OPINION (Column)
We’re All Mad Here
By JON COUPAL
When the Cheshire Cat told Alice, “We’re all mad here,” he could have been expressing how two of California’s most prominent officials view voters.
In a recent San Francisco speech, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told a group of educators that the term limits law—Proposition 140, approved by voters in 1990—was “crazy.”
Voters knew exactly what they were doing when they approved term limits. They wanted to put an end to having an imperial state government dominated for decades by the same handful of legislative leaders who had been elected by a fraction of California voters. They wanted to change a system in which the status of its leaders more closely resembled a monarchy than a representative democracy.
However, our governor, who swept into office promising to “blow up the boxes” and reform Sacramento, allowed himself to become co-opted by the system, especially after losing his reform agenda at the polls in 2005. Further eschewing his populist mandate, last year he endorsed Proposition 93, term limits “reform” that would have “grandfathered” a handful of newfound powerful friends allowing them to serve an addition term. Again, the voters showed they were serious about limiting a politician’s time in office by voting “no.”
Still, this expression of disrespect for the voters by a lame duck governor, who has become known for saying one thing and doing another while flitting from one issue to the next, is of small consequence.
More unsettling is the disdain for the voters’ judgment shown by our sitting California Chief Justice Ron George. Recently, George traveled to Massachusetts to tell the American Academy of Arts and Sciences that the initiative process is responsible for California’s “dysfunctional state government.” He warned of the “dangers of direct democracy” and said “California’s lawmakers, and the state itself, have been placed in a fiscal straitjacket by a steep two-thirds vote imposed at the ballot box for raising taxes.”
Although George misstated the law—state taxes require a two-thirds vote of the Legislature and are not required to be placed on the ballot—his hostility to this taxpayer protection provided by Proposition 13 is clear.
Even more alarming is the timing of the justice’s remarks because there is a case currently pending before the California Supreme Court involving the interpretation of the two-thirds vote requirement for state taxes under Proposition 13 (California Farm Bureau Federation v. State Water Resources Control Board). That case has been fully briefed and is currently awaiting oral argument. As a matter of course, members of the judiciary rarely make public statements regarding cases before them that they have yet to resolve.
The initiative process was placed into our state constitution a hundred years ago so that the public could take action when lawmakers proved indolent, incompetent or corrupt. In the late 1970s, when people were losing their homes due to double-digit annual tax increases and the Legislature refused to act, the voters used the power of the initiative to qualify Proposition 13 to limit annual increases in property taxes.
To prevent lawmakers from arbitrarily using other means to reach into taxpayers’ pockets, the measure required a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to approve state tax hikes, a threshold that was achieved in 1991 and in February of this year.
Without the initiative process, taxpayers would be stripped naked of protection and find themselves totally at the mercy of those in government who have shown themselves more concerned about their status and perks and rewarding their friends than in serving the public.
Those in government who question the citizens’ wisdom in the use of the initiative process should take note. Voters are not crazy, but as Howard Jarvis would say, “We are mad as hell” and if we need to go back to the initiative to make corrections to state government, we will.