Bill Whalen

California’s Ballot Ballet – Danse Macabre

Here are two developments out of Sacramento that should concern you if (a) you worry about the plight of the state’s finances, and (b) you fret over how the state’s elected leaders can make a bad situation worse.

First, the financial health – a state budget that’s reached “code red”, as in a rising tide of red ink.

According to California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office, the state’s General Fund is now $3 billion shy of the year-to-date target. Unless that changes, it’ll mean more nasty budget cuts this summer regardless of the outcome of Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax-hike ballot proposition.

This latest bad news didn’t go unnoticed by Standard & Poor’s, which already gives the Golden State a nation’s-worst A- minus rating. S&P likely won’t downgrade California any further (for now), but it is concerned about Sacramento’s direction.

Which takes us to the second reason to reach for the Tums: Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s plan to amend California’s initiative process.

Steinberg’s fix, introduced in this speech to the Sacramento Press Club:

1)  Allow the Legislature to place initiatives on the ballot via a simple-majority vote (at present, a two-thirds majority is required – Steinberg wouldn’t change that for constitutional amendments);

2)  Allow initiative proponents to negotiate with the governor and Legislature – either to amend the ballot measure, or pass a law without the hassle of going to the polls.

3)  Free up the Legislature to amend or repeal an initiative once it’s been on the books for 10 years.

So how would all of this make a “bad” situation worse? Let’s take them, in order:

1)  Removing the Two-Thirds Requirement. The argument here is the Legislature, like the initiative process itself, reflects vox populi – if Democratic lawmakers want to place a tax hike on the ballot, they’re simply reflecting a majority of Californians’ wishes as they constitute an overwhelming majority of the Legislature.  The problem with this: the Legislature doesn’t reflect California either in its polarized ideology deep or its partisan makeup (both chambers are nearly two-thirds Democratic, yet Democrats account for only 43.5% of all registered voters). And it gives the Dems an easy out for avoiding spending cuts. Like 2010’s Proposition 25, which changed approval of the budget approval from a two-thirds to a simple majority (translation: majority power play), this is simply another means of preventing minority Republicans from throwing up a roadblock to the majority’s plans. Clever politics by the Senate Democratic leader, but misleading advertising.

2)  Amending Ballot Measures. It sounds like meddling, but Steinberg has a legitimate gripe. Take, for example, Proposition 71 – California’s stem-cell research initiative – which, with a little fine-tuning (and some rewriting), perhaps could have avoided a legal challenge that kept the measure tied up in legal knots for the better part of 18 months. The so-called “indirect initiative process” was proposed a decade ago by a bipartisan commission on California initiative reform, in part as a means of reducing initiative clutter (now a bigger concern for California, with all ballot props relegated to the November ballot).

3)  The 10-Year Review. A red flag – say, the size of one of those gigantic banners they roll out at the World Series. Give liberal lawmakers a chance to undo recent ballot history, and you can say bye-bye to some if not all of the following: Prop 209 (university racial quotas); Prop 227 (bilingual education) – and the bane of the left’s existence in Sacramento, the landmark Proposition 13.

The fact is: California lawmakers have a love-hate relationship with the initiative process, Sen. Steinberg being no exception. He bemoans having his hands tied by ballot box budgeting (the latest installment: this fall’s Proposition 29, which would tax tobacco but dictates that the money be spent on cancer research). Yet Steinberg was the author of 2004’s Prop 63, which imposed a 1% tax on millionaires and earmarked the revenue for mental-health programs.

Reform of California’s initiative is long overdue – a consensus opinion, save for those folks who find signature-gathering to be a lucrative industry in the Golden State’s otherwise languid economy (California’s “recovery” running about three years’ behind the rest of the nation).

But giving the Legislature a greater say in what makes it way to the ballot? Or, in Steinberg’s case, making it easier to dump tax increases on the ballot and look for voter-stamped bailout, as opposed to tackling the chronic deficit as not just only revenue but a spending problem? And giving his party a means of killing initiatives that don’t pass its p.c. litmus test?

Buyers beware.

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