I seem to remember seeing several polls in the last year indicating that Californians—unlike their political leaders—have the stomach to undertake reform of Proposition 13. As most Californians know, that initiative, passed by voters in 1978, introduced an undemocratic supermajority requirement, centralised the funding and management of many functions which had formerly been hashed out by local governments, and rigidified the income tax system.
The outcome for the Golden State has been an increasingly inadequate system of social welfare, declining schools, crisis-ridden universities, and a political system that only even begins to function if one party holds a supermajority in the Assembly and Senate—clearly too high a threshold for mere functionality.
The Sacramento Bee recently wrote about a new poll which found that “Californians value the ballot initiative and want it to remain as a check on a political system they mistrust, but voters support major reforms in the process”.
This is a promising development, because it is through the initiative process that many of our polity’s fabled contradictions are built into government. As is usually the case when considering political reform in California, it is helpful to turn to Mark Paul and Joe Mathews’ tract, California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It. The authors describe California’s initiative process as unusually inflexible, and stands almost outside of the rest of state government in that there is no provision for legislators taking a hand in the process.
Paul and Mathews offer six sharp suggestions for reforming the initiative process: “Require initiatives, as proposed laws and constitutional amendments, to adhere to the same rules as legislation; Establish higher standards for constitutional amendments that give voters and lawmakers complementary powers to add or to subtract from the document; Require any initiative that would impose supermajority voting rules to win the same supermajority of votes to become law; Require all ballot initiatives and bond measures to live within the legislative budget; Permit the legislature to enact each initiative or place a counterproposal next to the initiative on the ballot; Make it easier for voters to overturn the legislature through a more referendum-based direct democracy” (California Crackup, 175-181).
Critics of initiative reform often assume that reformers want to roll back provisions of direct democracy. But I think that the simple proposals above would actually enhance the elements of direct democracy in California’s system.
For example, it is not very democratic that—as is currently the case—a simple majority of voters can pass a measure requiring supermajority requirements for voters on other matters. The three-question voter proposal-legislative counterproposal-which of the above? formula suggested by Crackup authors does a much better job of integrating the elements of direct democracy into the existing—and important—legislative and executive elements of our system. And modifying the requirements for referenda—as opposed to initiatives—as Paul and Mathews suggest would allow voters to intervene more quickly in their political process.
The key to all of the suggestions in California Crackup is that what the state needs is sweeping, wholesale reform. Our system is a mess in large measure because of a century of ill-informed piecemeal tinkering. Piecemeal reform will likely yield more of the same—after all, the conceit that we are somehow better-intentioned than our forebears does not ring altogether true. For that reason, Paula and Mathews argue convincingly, when Californians do get around to reforming our Byzantine political structure, we need to do so comprehensively.
Polls indicate that Californians have a greater appetite for reform than our elected leaders, although part of the reticence of the latter is undoubtedly associated with a fear that if they tackle such a big project they risk a rebuke from volatile voters. Our current Governor is better placed than most because of his long experience and rapport with voters—my own views of him aside—to tackle this kind of reform, but has shown no interest in doing so. Perhaps voters must—the pun is inevitable, I suppose—take the initiative and work to persuade our elected leaders that California needs rational democratic reform, and that sooner would be better than later.
If you’re interested in learning more about some of Crackup authors cogent recommendations for reform of the initiative process, as well as of our voting system, budgeting, and bottom-up governance, I’m happy to loan my copy to any neighbours or, as I’m sure the authors would prefer, you can venture down to your nearest good bookshop.