California faces a grave crisis that tears at the very fabric of our direct democracy: The state is about to ask California voters for their opinion.
And you just can’t do that. It’s dangerous – as everyone from Gov. Brown to the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association has pointed out – to survey voters via a non-binding measure like Prop 49, the advisory questioning asking Californians whether Congress should propose an amendment to the US Constitution to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.
It’s hard to know what untold horrors will happen, since such nonbinding measures are so rare. And that should frighten us all.
Everyone who is anyone in California knows that the safest way to handle ballot measures is the normal way: Ask today’s voters to cast ballots only on measures that, if approved, can’t ever be changed again without another vote of the people.
In most cases, these normal, safer measures will stay on the books until well after many of the voters have died, or moved away. And that’s how it should be. If people don’t know their votes will outlive them, they’re likely to be terribly careless. But if they understand the stakes, well, they will diligently study the issues and make wise, considered choices, giving their polity a governing system that is the marvel of the world. Like California’s.
Gov. Brown understands this. Yes, he permitted Prop 49 to get on the ballot, but he made clear he didn’t approve. “We should not make it a habit to clutter our ballots with nonbinding measures,” he wrote in a statement to the legislature. Absolutely right, and Gov. Brown has shown his commitment to cluttering the ballot with totally binding measures, via legislation that banned ballot initiatives from anything other than November elections.
Brown’s fans at Howard Jarvis agree with such force that they’ve gone to court to keep this democratic travesty. Why, argues Jarvis, should the legislature have the power to ask the people what they think in a non-binding way when the people do not have the power to ask the people what they think in a non-binding way? That is unassailable logic.
Jarvis cites an early 1980s decision by the California Supreme Court to remove an initiative calling for a federal balanced budget amendment; the court said that didn’t belong on a California ballot. At about the same time, the same court said that Prop 13 was a mere amendment to the state constitution and not a revision that would change California governance as we know it. And the court was totally right on both subjects.
For those dim fools who weren’t convinced of the threat of Prop 49 by Brown or the Jarvis folks, Loren Kaye has written here with outrage at how this measure is wasting our time and just playing politics. Presumably, Prop 49 will take attention and time away from other measures like Prop 44, which would give the state yet another rainy day fund that doesn’t work to add to its existing reserve funds that don’t work.
Kaye also points out that you can’t find the power to put a non-binding measure anywhere in the California state constitution, a powerful argument given that document’s well-deserved reputation for brevity, clarity and common sense. That means that asking citizens about a constitutional amendment to Citizens United is in and of itself unconstitutional. I mean, if you’re looking to make constitutional changes, we should be making clear that proponents of ballot initiatives have the constitutional right to defend even blatantly unconstitutional measures that attack other people’s lives – or our democracy will crumble.
I could go on, but I think it’s pretty clear that the Prop 49 nonbinding measure is a shameful, terrible, and outrageous seizure of power by a legislature. And I find it especially sneaky because the legislature’s tool is a ballot measure that has no power to change anything.