The LA Times columnist George Skelton calls Prop 54 “a motherhood-and-apple-pie proposal if ever there was one” in that it supposedly limits the power of special interests. And Skelton adds: “This is the kind of measure that legendary reform Gov. Hiram Johnson and other California progressives had in mind when they established the state’s initiative system 105 years ago.”
Skelton is wrong not only about Prop 54—a measure that puts new limitations on the ability of the legislature to compromise and make deals– he is wrong about history, and about our mothers and their pies.
The false history of Johnson is now commonplace, but it’s wrong. Johnson was no good-hearted legend who created a noble initiative process only to see it go bad. It went bad as soon as it was created back in 1911, and Johnson saw that clearly (and used it to bad ends himself). Johnson was a dark-hearted, cynical fighter, who rose out of the violence and nastiness of post-earthquake San Francisco. And he saw direct democracy not as a noble reform but as a “gun in a man’s hand”—a way to have fighting and conflict. Johnson pushed much legislation through the legislature by many maneuvers, including the constitutional amendment that gave us the initiative process. If we could resurrect him from the Colma mausoleum where he rests, I bet he’d be no on Prop 54.
As far as the slandering of moms, here’s a way to think about, I don’t know the mothers of those who put Prop 54 on the ballot—maybe they want to encourage fighting, conflict and special interest lobbying. But most moms I know want to encourage compromise from their sons and daughters—and from the people who represent them.
Prop 54 makes that task harder.
Yes, it’s framed as transparency. And it’s key provisions sound good. Let’s have all the proceedings of the legislature videoed! And let’s make sure that every bill is in print for 72 hours—not gutting one bill at the end of session to replace it with unrelated content! Who could be against such limits on lawmakers?
Your mother, for one—if she understood how much the power of the California legislature has already been limited, often by the very same reformers behind Prop 54.
These reformers love small measures like this. They’ve refused to take on all the big limits on legislative power—the endless supermajorities and budget spending formulas that restrict the ability of our elected lawmakers to negotiate, compromise and find solutions to difficult problems. The reformers also love (and want to add to) restrictions on fundraising, which actually force lawmakers to spend more time raising money, and less time working on California’s many problems.
As a result of all this – and our state’s heavy regulations and aggressive courts — lawmakers can do very little themselves on taxes, spending and very big questions for the state. Prop 54, in this context, isn’t reform. It’s more of the same. It makes it harder for lawmakers to do hard things and make big deals before lobbyists and specialists pick them apart. Which is what lobbyists and specialists will do with the 72 hours that Prop 54 would afford them.
Many of the people behind Prop 54 supported the establishment of the state’s redistricting commission. That was seen as bringing transparency and good government to California politics (though some reports suggests lots of questionable manipulation and backroom dealing on the commission during the most recent drawing of district lines).
But the real problem was: the redistricting commission robbed the legislature, and its leadership, of one of its few tools to force deals. In particular, it robbed the legislature of the power to get bipartisan deals, and bipartisan deals are vital in a state where 2/3 supermajorities are common, particularly on revenues.
If you don’t think that has consequences, think again. With redistricting power, our legislative leaders and governor might have had an opening to compel Republicans to support broader tax increases and tax reforms back in 2011. After all, the Democrats in power could have eliminated the seats of Republicans. But instead, a commission did it.
So what happened? A temporary tax measure, Prop 30, that made only minor changes to sales and income taxes went before voters. That helped some, but it hasn’t produced the steadier, higher revenues the state needs for more serious public investments (and to restore the damage done from years of budget crises).
And now that money is starting to go away. Some of it may be kept if Prop 55 passes, but that again is a narrow temporary task that skirts the question of how to create a rational tax and budget system. That’s a task that requires more levers of power than the legislature currently has. Wouldn’t true reform give the legislature more power to make deals and compromise?
That’s how representative democracies are supposed to work. Ask your mom the next time you’re home for apple pie.