Direct democracy: Good, bad or ugly?
Direct democracy may prove to be the undoing of California government. At the very least, here in the land of unintended consequences, we’re doing it to ourselves. We the people of California, with passage of each proposition or initiative – good or bad – gradually reduce effective governance. Or in the case of the special election in November, voter fatigue, negative campaign ads, displeasure with the expense of yet another election can result in, well, a resounding “no” to everything.Isn’t it ironic that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger was compelled to use direct democracy to raise issues of reform that should be deliberated by the Legislature? After all, these are complex, far-reaching constitutional matters. The often heated debates during the Constitutional Convention in 1787 led the participants to reason that a “republic” form of government, whereby elected representatives would enact laws on behalf of the populace is best – “if you can keep it,” quipped Benjamin Franklin. I am sure California’s version of democracy has the founding fathers spinning as we prove just how right they were with each primary election.What remains of California’s original Constitution? Adopted in 1879, the Constitution changed little until 1911. During that period, the Southern Pacific Railroad virtually controlled both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office. No matter what your party, to go against the railroad was the surest way out of office. Progressive sweepThe progressive movement promoted “direct democracy” to break the control and ultimate corruption of the railroad and other corporate interests. In 1910, Hiram Johnson ran for governor on a platform to restore “absolute sovereignty to the people.” Debate ensued as to what that meant. Nevertheless, the Progressives swept the election in the Assembly, the Senate and governor’s race.Thus in 1911, the Legislature passed into law the initiative, referendum and the recall to the California Constitution. Contained in this legislation was the provision that a passed initiative could only be amended by another initiative, and not by the Legislature. Direct democracy was intended to bypass the Legislature when gridlock occurred. In many ways this element has actually promoted a legislative “pass” on controversial and complex issues. In today’s environment it actually promotes gridlock.By 1912 William Bennett Munro, known for his study of public administration, stated, “A body which can do no harm can, by the same token, do little good.” Sound familiar?The federal Constitution has been amended 27 times in 217 years, the first 10 of which all occurred together in the Bill of Rights. California’s Constitution, on the other hand, has been amended over 500 times by referendum and over 40 by initiative, primarily in the past 94 years. Between 1912 and 1978, a total of 46 amendments had passed, averaging two every three years. To put it in perspective, prior to Proposition 13 (1978), about 15 filings for initiative were made each year, today there are over 90. Prop 13How does this relate to real life? Proposition 13 is a good example. Enacted by the voters in 1978, Proposition 13 limited property tax increases on any given property to no more than 2 percent per year as long as the property was not sold. Once sold, the property was reassessed at 1 percent of the new market value with the 2 percent yearly cap placed on the new assessment. In addition, Proposition 13 required that all state tax rate increases be approved by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature and that local tax rates also have to be approved by a vote of the people. At the time, Proposition 13 sounded like a great idea. It gave the voters control over their taxes and forced governments to stop runaway increases on tax rates or property value assessments. However, city and county government budgets rely heavily on property tax revenue to maintain infrastructure and protect public health and safety.Proposition 13 effectively removed a primary revenue source for local governments to provide basic public services. Similarly, many of the initiatives passed by the people are either poorly written, difficult to enforce, fail to identify a clear or permanent funding source, or violate provisions of the Constitution; all basically limiting the Legislature’s ability to govern. Jules Tygiel, professor of History at San Francisco State University, observes direct democracy in the post-Proposition 13 era this way: “The initiative was no longer viewed as a means to correct the Legislature. Rather, it became an instrument to govern.” So the “unintended consequence” of that which was to improve democracy has morphed into the modern-day California gold rush for competing special interest groups that demand higher government spending and reduced taxes without concern for cause and effect on the greater government. We lay blame at the feet of the Legislature when budgets have structural deficits and are not delivered on time, yet the California Legislature only has discretion over 15 to 20 cents on the dollar, depending on the year. We’ve tied up the rest ourselves. It is becoming increasingly less possible for the state government to govern.Tough decisionsThe Progressives may have been right for their time, but not for longevity. Elected representatives in a democracy are intended to study, debate, deliberate, compromise and decide upon the heady issues on behalf of those who lack the knowledge, time, or access to communication. They could not have imagined the power of radio, television and the Internet to “sell” constituents on superficial information. In today’s high-speed communication environment, Californians still ultimately do not participate in the extensive study and debate that we elect our representatives to do on our behalf. Today, we the people make the tough choices based on 15-second sound bites and limited voter information packets.When things don’t go right, we blame the Legislature, initiate recalls and introduce new initiatives. We have hog-tied our representatives to the point that we don’t know how they would do if they were, in fact, in a position to actually govern. In the state of Virginia, which does not have the initiative process, the state budget is balanced and completed on time. The Legislature controls the process. If Virginians are unhappy with their legislature, they make their choices at the ballot box during regular elections. What we need is one more proposition to end so-called “direct democracy.” Otherwise, sooner or later, the state government will implode upon itself.Ted Owens is the District V supervisor for Nevada County and former mayor of Truckee.
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