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Are ballot initiatives broken? California offers clues

Do ballot initiatives put power in the hands of the voters, or are they another tool for special interests to dominate politics? California's experiences – both good and bad – make it an important laboratory for 'direct democracy.'

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California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) campaigned for Proposition 30 at New Technology High School in Sacramento, Calif., in August. The initiative would raise income taxes on the wealthy as well as sales taxes in order to balance the state budget – thus avoiding billions in mandatory cuts that would kick in otherwise.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP

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Is the initiative process an invaluable tool that holds legislators to account and allows voters to take on the monied interests that dominate politics? Or has it become a tool of those special interests themselves, confusing voters and making states an ungovernable mess?

Opinions on the ballot initiative process in America vary widely, but California – which has passed more initiatives than any other state except Oregon – has been perhaps the nation's most important laboratory for direct democracy.

In California's experience, both the good and the bad are apparent.

In recent years, many political analysts have come to see the initiative process as broken.

"Originally, the initiative process was to be a safety valve to allow citizens to go around the legislature held in thrall by special interests," says Sherry Jeffe, a senior fellow at the School of Policy, Planning, and Development at the University of Southern California (USC). "What it has become is another tool of special interests to get what they want by buying it from the public or pressuring the legislature, by just threatening to file an initiative to get them to move."

She says a handful of key initiatives have made governing the state far more difficult:

• Proposition 13, which in 1978 put a cap on the annual increase in property-tax rates, resulted in localities having huge budget shortfalls that must be backfilled by the state.

• Proposition 98 in 1988 required a minimum percentage of the state budget to be spent on K-12 education, tying legislators' hands.

• Proposition 140 in 1990 created term limits on legislators, which forces them to leave just as many are beginning to understand how lawmaking works.

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