State Legislature is stuck on the hamster wheel of ballot initiatives

| November 03, 2011

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

That ancient philosophical — or would it be biological? — question has a political counterpart in California.

To wit: Did California’s Legislature become dysfunctional because voters adopted too many contradictory ballot measures, or were those ballot measures merely responding to the Legislature’s chronic inability or unwillingness to deal with substantial issues? Countless academic conferences, newspaper op-ed essays and even books have been devoted to answering, or attempting to answer, the question ever since ballot measures became the central method of policymaking in 1978.

There’s little question that Proposition 13, whatever its merits or deficiencies, was a reaction to the Legislature’s failure to deal with rapidly increasing property taxes during the 1970s.

Legislators and then-Gov. Jerry Brown became engaged only after the measure had been qualified for the ballot, offering a too-little-too-late alternative that voters rejected.

Since then, hundreds of initiatives have been proposed, dozens have been placed before voters and a fair number have won.

Those on the right have used the initiative, but so have those on the left, although the former have been a bit more successful.

This year, the state Democratic Party declared war on the initiative, arguing that it had become an oppressive tool of special interests, and its legislators introduced a flock of measures to make going to the ballot more difficult. Brown rejected some bills that reached his desk, but signed one that requires ballot measures to be decided only at November general elections or special elections.

Ironically, however, as the Legislature’s majority Democrats were criticizing the initiative process for usurping the legislative process, they also were providing new evidence that the Capitol’s indolence often forces folks to use the ballot.

For instance, the Legislature refused to enact much-needed legislation to clear up the haphazard local regulation of clinics that dispense marijuana, in response to a previous initiative ballot measure that authorized its medicinal use.

Federal authorities have been cracking down hard on California’s marijuana dispensaries — even threatening their landlords with property seizure — claiming that profiteers were controlling the trade.

It could have been avoided had the Legislature created a Colorado-style system of state regulation. But lawmakers ducked the issue, probably fearing political fallout. Now medical marijuana advocates are proposing to do it via initiative.

If legislators don’t like the flood of initiative ballot measures, they should do their jobs rather than attempt to kneecap the process.

Dan Walters’ Sacramento Bee columns on state politics are syndicated by the Scripps Howard News Service.

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