California Supreme Court Strengthens Local Government by the Developer and the Public Employees

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

Here’s one sign of just how awful the supermajority-crazy California system is. Even when a court eliminates a perfectly awful supermajority, it makes things worse.

That’s what happened when the California Supreme Court killed off a supermajority that required local ballot initiatives that raised revenues to win supermajorities of voters to be approved. The court, in long and unconvincing argument, effectively nullified statewide ballot measures that had established supermajorities for local ballot initiatives that raised revenues.

The court’s argument was that direct democracy is so strong that a local measure that is an initiative – which means it is put on the ballot by signatures – should not be constrained by a supermajority. Effectively, the court’s dangerous logic is that direct democracy exists in a time and space beyond local or state government. Direct democracy is an authority unto itself.

That’s scary, and so is the impact of removing this supermajority. Because the supermajority rule remains in place for revenue-producing measures put on the ballot by local elected officials themselves.

In effect, the court has further weakened the power of our local elected officials – and all of us who vote for them. It’s bad enough that local elected officials can’t raise taxes by themselves. Now, in asking voters to raise revenues, they have much less power than outside groups wealthy enough to use ballot initiatives.

This is a devastating turn of affairs for local democrqacy. For one thing, this means that the people you elect to your school board and city council have less power to influence how much you pay in taxes than business or other interests that are headquartered in other parts of California or even around the country or the world.

And even within your community, this ruling empowers the groups that most often run ballot initiatives: developers and public employee unions.

Those two entities already have outsized power in local government, for a host of reasons. This decision will turn our elected officials into little more than servants of these interests. It’s likely that elected officials who need revenue in a city or school district will not suggest tax measures themselves. Instead, they’ll go ask the union or the developer to put the measure on the ballot. In that process, the unions or developers will likely have power to shape the tax, even as they curry more local favor.

In this way, the California Supreme Court, posing as defender of democracy, actually weakened our democracy. The court should learn its lesson and stop trying to fix, piece by piece, our state’s broken governing system. If the court wants to break down the supermajority system, then the justices should speak out – and urge Californians to adopt a new, shorter constitution – with many fewer supermajorities.

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