There are those who would place all the blame on Hiram Johnson. It was Johnson, as Governor, and the Progressives who brought the great reforms of the Initiative, Referendum, and Recall (along with direct election of US Senators) to California nearly 100 years ago to break the monopoly on power held by the State Legislature and the corporate interests who owned the individual members of that body.*
The legacy of a century of Initiatives and Referendums is a state Constitution with over 500 amendments (often conflicting with or negating each other) that is the world's third longest (eight times the length of the U.S. Constitution), a practice of budgeting through the ballot box that has left the Governor and Legislature very little authority in dealing with fiscal emergencies, and a state that is considered by many on both the right and the left as being virtually un-governable.
Far from being a tool for the people to self-govern when leaders fail, it has become accepted that to pass any statewide ballot measure requires the backing of the same large monied interests that the Progressives sought to silence. And yet, we still cling to the progressive reforms. While nearly all see the need for reform in how our state is governed, virtually nobody is suggesting an overhaul of the Initiative and Referendum process.
In fact, a year from now, in November 2010, we are likely to have at least half-a-dozen reform efforts using the Initiative process to cure us of the problems caused by abuse of the Initiative process. Can Alanis Morissette write a verse about that irony?
Yesterday I went to a lunch meeting of the American Leadership Forum, Silicon Valley, to hear about the history of some of these reform movements, previous efforts to save our state, and to discuss whether too many reform efforts on the same ballot will doom them all. The guest speaker was Don Benninghoven, a former Executive Director of the League of California Cities, and the vice-chair of the Constitutional Revision Commission (1996-98) appointed by Governor Pete Wilson.
That Commission actually did recommend some changes to the Initiative process, including adding a requirement that the Legislature review all submitted initiatives and have the opportunity to amend them before being submitted to the voters. This was suggested as a way of cutting down on the law suits that inevitably follow most initiatives by having them conform to certain standards of Constitutional review. They also recommended that rather than be set in stone and require another costly initiative to amend once an initiative is passed, that there be a set time frame (five years?) after which the Legislature could amend initiatives without putting it before the people. By the time their report was finalized, however, a new Republican majority had taken over the Legislature and they shelved the entire project.
But on to November of 2010... Several organizations have submitted Initiative language to the State, and will likely soon receive approval to start collecting signatures for ballot access. They include...
The League of California Cities will have their "Save our Cities... Again" Initiative. Basically, their aim is to protect local jurisdictions (the only level of government that most citizens still trust) from having their funds grabbed by the State each time the State is in trouble. The League has been successful with this type of Initiative before.
California Forward has their 2010 Reform Plan as well. This will likely be on the ballot in two (or three?) different measures, including such reforms as changing the vote needed to pass a state budget from 2/3 majority to simple majority, holding legislators personally responsible for failing to pass a budget on time, and protection of local government, similar to the League of California Cities effort.
And then there's the biggie: Repair California's call for a new State Constitutional Convention (Repair California was initiated by the Bay Area Council, but has grown to be a statewide coalition). Rather than work piecemeal around this problem or that problem and just add to the clutter of our unworkable governing document, they want to start fresh. Of course, that fresh start requires two Initiatives to set in motion: One to amend the current state Constitution to allow for citizens to call for a convention, and the second one to actually make that call.
Of course, this is the Initiative (or two) that has me the most fascinated and interested. It could be the greatest thing to happen to this state politically since 1911, or it could be total chaos. Or both. Either way, it could be a lot of fun and something I want to take a part in, either as an official delegate or just as an observer.
And, of course, even if all goes well, and they come up with the greatest state constitution of all time, it will still need to be approved by the people. After all that work, if it contains too many changes to current law, or anything even remotely controversial, it could fail miserably, leaving us right where we are now. It is for this reason that many of the participants in yesterday's meeting did not want to support Repair California's plan. But for me, even with all the potential pitfalls, I'm drawn to it and feel we have to give a try.
Soon the signature gathering will begin, and assuming all of the above qualify for the ballot, it will be up to the good people of this state (and many of the bad ones) to decide which way to go. Personally, I see no conflict between them. We can amend the budget process (CA Forward) and protect local government (League of CA Cities) today, and work on a new Constitution for tomorrow.
* While Johnson was a forward thinking and progressive leader on domestic issues for the first half of the 20th century, first as Governor then as US Senator, he was also an isolationist and xenophobe who supported the California Alien Land Act, prohibiting Asians from purchasing property, and was the only US Senator to vote against both the League of Nations and the United Nations.