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California Voter Initiatives Bad Idea, Makes “State Government Dysfunctional”

October 11, 2009

On May 19th I wrote the following line about California.

“The publicly driven voter initiatives have done more harm over the years to the political and budgetary process than anything else the state has encountered.”

As one who likes to watch how policy is created, and the effect that flows from such decisions, the challenges that California faces is continually fascinating.  I have been highly critical of the never-ending, and at time mind-numbing referendums placed on their ballots, but fail to find others who speak out in the forceful way I think is needed to address some of the problems that result from voter initiatives.  Today however I was pleased to read this in my newspaper.

In a rare public rebuke of state government and policies delivered by a sitting judge, the chief justice of the California Supreme Court scathingly criticized the state’s reliance on the referendum process, arguing that it has “rendered our state government dysfunctional.”

In a speech Saturday before the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Mass., the chief justice, Ronald M. George, denounced the widespread use of the referendum process to change state laws and constitutions. And he derided California as out of control, with voters deciding on everything from how parts of the state budget are spent to how farm animals are managed.

The state is unusual, he said, because it prohibits its Legislature from amending or repealing many types of laws without voter approval, essentially hamstringing that body — and the executive branch.

Justice George’s remarks come at a time of severe budget crisis in California stemming from a variety of factors, including mandates from ballot initiatives. Several groups on the left and the right are clamoring for changes to the state’s Constitution, including reining in of the direct democracy that has defined much of how the state operates.

This week, hundreds of people will convene in Sacramento for a conference on constitutional reform. A spokesman for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger declined to comment on the justice’s speech.

Justice George said that perhaps the “most consequential” impact of the referendum process is that it limits “how elected officials may raise and spend revenue.” He added, “California’s lawmakers, and the state itself, have been placed in a fiscal straitjacket by a steep two-thirds-vote requirement — imposed at the ballot box — for raising taxes.”

He added: “Much of this constitutional and statutory structure has been brought about not by legislative fact-gathering and deliberation, but rather by the approval of voter initiative measures, often funded by special interests. These interests are allowed under the law to pay a bounty to signature-gatherers for each signer. Frequent amendments — coupled with the implicit threat of more in the future — have rendered our state government dysfunctional, at least in times of severe economic decline.”

2 Comments
  1. June 3, 2011 9:47 PM

    Originally, the initiative process was meant to combat the state’s endemic political corruption by weakening the state legislature.

    They succeeded. Nowadays, if an interest group opposes a proposed law or budget in the legislature, they can go directly to the public with cleverly-worded and biased propositions. This gives unelected interest groups extraordinary power over the state’s legislative process. Not only does this weaken the legislature, but it also enervates the ability of California’s voters to hold politicians responsible for policy failures. Who are voters supposed to blame for bad policy? Interest groups? Politicians? Themselves? This is something that really affects California’s political system negatively. I’ve spent a bit of time thinking about this lately and posted my first article on this subject at themindroom.blogspot.com.

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