Thursday, May 26, 2011
IN MY OPINION (Column)
Don’t Give Up Our Right to Initiatives
By JON COUPAL and HARVEY ROSENFIELD
If bills now circulating in the Legislature had been law for the last 35 years, here are just a few of the things California would be without: tougher penalties for sex offenders, the Coastal Commission, the Victims’ Bill of Rights, auto insurance reform, protections for local government, schools and transportation funding and the right to vote on local taxes.
Over 100 years ago, Governor Hiram Johnson instituted the initiative process making citizens the legislature of last resort. When lawmakers proved to be too indolent, incompetent or corrupt to deal with the real needs and concerns of citizens, voters had the option of taking measures directly to the ballot
In 1978 when hundreds of thousands of California homeowners were on the verge of losing their homes to property taxes that, in some cases, were doubling in one year, the Sacramento politicians refused to act. The citizens used their right to the initiative to place property tax reform, known as Proposition 13, before voters. Had today’s lawmakers had their way, the already very difficult process of qualifying for the ballot—requiring the collection of nearly one million signatures of registered voters – would have been virtually impossible.
In 1988, when auto insurance rates were sky high and the only voices that mattered were those representing the insurance industry and trial lawyers, Proposition 103 gave consumers a voice. It required that rates be reviewed by an elected insurance commissioner and barred the previous practice of charging drivers based on where they lived rather than their driving record. All of the entrenched special interests were opposed, and had some of the laws now being proposed in Sacramento been in place back then, the politicians and their special interest allies would have been able to crush reform that has saved consumers more than $60 billion.
Despite the fact that Californians overwhelmingly support the right of the people to place measures on the ballot, the initiative process is under attack like never before in the Legislature. On a bipartisan basis, legislators, with their 11 percent approval rating, seem intent on eliminating any potential competition. After all, if they are the only game in town, this increases their power and ability to collect campaign contributions and other goodies lavished on them by favor seekers.
Chief among proposals to undercut the People’s initiative rights is Assembly Constitutional Amendment 6, which says that any ballot proposition that requires spending over $5 million, and does not include a funding source, would not become law. So, if in the future, California voters approve a tax cut, the measure would have to include a tax increase somewhere else to offset the “loss” –tax cuts are typically treated as expenditures by the government.
Who would decide whether a ballot initiative complies with this unprecedented requirement? The Department of Finance (which is controlled by the Governor) and the Legislative Analyst Office (which reports to the Legislature) would be given full authority to block Californians from voting on the measure. Nothing more than a simple claim by government officials that an initiative would cost more than $5 million could keep the proposition off the ballot indefinitely.
You don’t have to know much about Sacramento to recognize how much mischief ACA 6 would cause. It would allow Sacramento politicians to block good government reforms like redistricting that might be unsettling to the political class.
Numerous other bills under consideration over the next few months would erect additional hurdles before the people’s right to put legislation on the ballot. ACA 19 allows the legislature to tamper with a ballot measure after the voters place it on the ballot. SCA 9 would authorize the Legislature to change or even repeal a proposition after it is passed by voters.
The initiative process gives Californians the right to take matters into their own hands when a paralyzed, corrupt or incompetent government fails to do its job. These bills would strip voters of that right, and increase the power of the Sacramento politicians and their special interest supporters to dictate to the rest of us.