Op-Ed: Direct democracy in California has been a dangerously mixed bag. It doesn’t have to be

California has just established a new governor and a new legislature. But our state is not governed so much by these elected officials as by direct democracy. California’s most important decisions in recent years – on taxes, the budget, the environment, and other matters – have been made by citizens at the polls as part of the initiative process.

Legislative measures initiated in the State Assembly or Senate pass through committees and are debated, reviewed and amended. This process, known as “second reading”, can strengthen bills and eliminate problems with them.

In contrast, the process of revising citizen voting measures is woefully inadequate and sometimes leads to the adoption of initiatives that do not stand up to legal scrutiny. This is what happened with Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage, and Proposition 187, which limited public services to immigrants who are here illegally. Both measures won the ballot box, but were later rejected by the courts.

Citizens’ legislation has also produced a dysfunctional web of tax policies. Take the founding case of Proposition 13, passed in 1978. Because property taxes were frozen, as spending on schools and utilities continued to rise, deficits were inevitable.

The polls have proven easily to be hijacked by vested interests over the years.

And there was Proposition 55, passed in 2016, which left California with a tax system so dependent on a small base of wealthy taxpayers that the budget is extremely vulnerable to business cycles. Barely 1% of state residents now pay almost 50% of all taxes on income and capital gains, the main source of general fund income. This means that an economic downturn can result in a budget cut of up to 25%.

Voting measures have proven easy to hijack by vested interests over the years, and we have seen real estate, tobacco and oil interests, as well as some unions, introduce measures to protect their loot under the guise of the good public.

One example is Proposition 23 in 2010. A voting measure falsely titled “The California Jobs Initiative” was sponsored by primarily non-state oil interests aimed at overturning greenhouse gas emissions legislation . Fortunately, the public ultimately voted against the measure. But $ 75 million, a record at the time, was spent by warring parties in the campaign to tip voters one way or the other.

Yet voting metrics are powerful tools when they work. On the bright side, Californians have adopted initiatives that ended gerrymandering by shifting redistribution to citizens’ committees and broke the partisan deadlock by requiring only a simple majority vote on budgets. Initiatives have also enacted sweeping environmental laws to protect the coast and combat climate change.

There has been some progress in resolving issues with the initiative process, but not enough. Legislation passed in 2014 amended the state initiative law for the first time in 40 years, requiring the Secretary of State to notify the Legislature when 25% of qualified signatures are collected for a ballot measure . At this point, lawmakers may seek to work with sponsors to eliminate flaws and unintended consequences or even decide to pursue the matter through legislation rather than initiative if the sponsors agree. The legislator is also required to hold hearings on the subject of the measure no later than 131 days before the date of the next elections.

By law, promoters can withdraw their measure from the ballot within the 131-day period if they reach a negotiated consensus on the legislation. This process has already led to the passage in the legislature of a landmark minimum wage law and digital privacy legislation, both of which started as ballot proposals but were instead enacted by lawmakers.

The law could, however, be improved by requiring lawmakers to complete their review earlier. As it stands, the deadlines for hearing and withdrawing a bill from the ballot are the same. If the hearings were held earlier in the process, lawmakers would have more time to negotiate compromises with poll sponsors.

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Another good next step for California would be to adopt the type of Citizen Review Boards already in place in Oregon. The state is bringing together a group of randomly selected voters to hear from supporters and opponents of a ballot measure as well as experts on the implications of the proposed policy. The panel then presents its findings to the public through a 750-word summary published in the voter guide. When voters go to the polls, they have the advantage of being informed by the selfless considerations of a body of their fellow citizens.

For now, the Oregon process is funded by private foundations, a model California could follow as a first step. Ultimately, however, these panels should be institutionalized in the Secretary of State’s office as part of the regular electoral landscape.

As representative government is challenged around the world by disgruntled citizens, more and more important decisions in democratic countries are made directly by voters through initiatives (or referendums such as Brexit). This trend makes it all the more important to introduce additional debates and other deliberative ballasts to help citizens make the rules that affect their lives.

Nathan Gardels is Executive Advisor of the Think Long Committee for California. He is co-author with Nicolas Berggruen of the next “Renovating Democracy: Governance in the Age of Globalization and Digital Capitalism”.


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