Initiative lawmaking by voters is certainly not used as often as creating laws in the legislature, but the initiative is often criticized more as a problem for state governance. Much of the criticism is aimed at undercutting the people’s lawmaking ability. In reality, the power of the people to make law through the initiative process is, by rights, equal to the legislative power to make law.
Last night in Los Angeles, I sat on a panel at a Zocalo Public Square event to discuss the initiative process. My fellow panelists were former California Supreme Court Justice, Carlos Moreno, former Sacramento Bee editorial page editor, Peter Schrag, and Bob Stern, President of the Center for Governmental Studies. The League of Women Voters Trudy Schafer moderated. The League of Women Voters of Los Angeles and the California Supreme Court Historical Society sponsored the event.
The panel discussion was titled: Can Direct Democracy Be Saved? I questioned whether we were focusing on the right subject. The initiative process and Direct Democracy enjoys wide support amongst the voters. Polls indicate 75% of the voters support the initiative process, why the legislature only records 20% approval. Perhaps, the question should be asked: Can representative government be saved?
Initiatives take a bad rap for supposedly gumming up the government works with initiative driven demands and mandates. But much of the problem that commentators and editorial writers complain about can be laid at the feet of the legislature.
The complaint that the legislature has been tied up by the initiative spending mandates has been debunked by a couple of sources. In 2009 the Legislative Analyst’s Office noted that the “Legislature remains in control of vast amounts of state spending.” USC professor John Matsusaka, head of the university’s Initiative & Referendum Institute, wrote in a study a few years ago, “The facts suggest that voter initiatives are not a significant obstacle to balancing the budget in California.”
As my fellow panelist, Bob Stern, told the legislature not too long ago, “Most of the ballot box budgeting comes from you.”
There have been 115 initiatives passed in the 100 years Direct Democracy has been in existence in California. Meanwhile, Governor Jerry Brown has been complaining that the legislature sent him 600 new bills to consider signing just in this legislative session. While voters have a chance to consider and discuss the handful of initiatives on each ballot, legislators don’t have that luxury with the massive amount of bills they have to confront, many at the last minute such as the infamous gut-and-amend bills. Remember, former state senator H.L. Richardson’s book titled, “What Makes You Think We Read the Bills?”
When former California Supreme Court Chief Justice, Ronald George, complained that California’s unruly constitution was too long because of 500 amendments, he should have been complaining about the legislature, not the initiative process. Maybe 85-90% of those amendments were birthed in the legislature.
The initiative power is important for the people and serves as an equal power to the legislative power to make laws. It must be equal for the voters to circumvent the legislature, which constantly tries to pass laws to make the initiative power subservient to the legislature.
The California Constitution states that, “All political power is inherent in the people” and they have the right to alter or reform government when the public good may require.
This issue of equal power plays out as Governor Brown considers whether to sign or veto SB 202 (Hancock). Amongst the changes offered up by the bill is the requirement that all initiatives are placed on the November ballot. The argument made by bill supporters is that a larger body of voters would be able to decide the initiative proposal.
If that is the criteria, why are not legislative ballot measures also forced onto the November ballot for the larger electorate to consider?
Not only is there political gamesmanship with SB 202, but also it would make the legislative and initiative power unequal, which is neither the intent of the California Constitution nor of the people of California.