Dan Walters

Ballot is a crude tool for making policy

When California voters passed Proposition 13 in 1978, they not only ushered in a new era of popular resistance to taxes but launched a new era of using the ballot measure as a powerful policy tool.

Over the nearly three decades since, California voters have decided the fate of hundreds of ballot propositions, most of them generated by initiative petitions. It is now fair to say that the ballot measure has replaced the Capitol — the governor and legislators — as the primary vehicle for deciding major issues.

Just as Proposition 13, which slashed property taxes, was a response to the Capitol's thumb-twiddling on tax relief in the 1970s, most of the measures since have reflected frustration by the public or particular interest groups over gridlock in Sacramento.

As a new book published by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) points out, use of the ballot measure as a political tool has accelerated during this decade, including a historic recall of a sitting governor in 2003 and his succession by movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has attempted, with mixed results, to use ballot measures as a way through or around an often-obstreperous Legislature.

It is, say the authors of "The Coming Age of Direct Democracy," a "new millennium for direct democracy." Mark Baldassare, president of PPIC, and researcher-journalist Cheryl Katz wrote the book, which combines a narrative of recent political history with snippets from PPIC's extensive polling.

Voters savor the power to set political policy, the polling has found, even though they often produce confusing and contradictory decrees that, in some cases, hamstring the Capitol's policymaking ability even more, thus creating even greater frustration with politicians' inaction.

One example, not cited in the book, involves two ballot measures connected to the state's chronic budget deficits that were placed before voters in 2004 and 2005.

The first, placed on the ballot by a liberal coalition of unions and other groups, would have lowered the Legislature's constitutional vote requirement for raising taxes, which Proposition 13 set at two-thirds, thus giving anti-tax Republicans a veto. It was defeated overwhelmingly.

A year later, one of Schwarzenegger's "year of reform" ballot measures would have addressed the deficit by making it easier for the governor to cut spending. It was also overwhelmingly rejected.

Baldassare and Katz take a fairly positive view of the ballot-measure phenomenon, saying it could transform California into a "hybrid democracy" they describe as "a combined use of the legislative process and the ballot box to make public policy."

A less benign view is that it symbolizes the continued devolvement of California into a collection of mutually hostile clans, defined by economic standing, ethnicity, culture, ideology and/or geography, that use politics, and especially ballot measures, to battle rival clans.

Even under the best circumstances, the ballot measure is a blunt, single-purpose political weapon, written privately by those willing and able to spend millions of dollars to qualify and enact it, without regard to ancillary consequences. The three decades of increasing ballot-measure activity have seen countless examples of single-purpose measures interacting with each other to make effective governance of California even less viable.

For instance, were a measure to be placed on next year's ballot to raise taxes for health care, as Schwarzenegger and his allies may do, the union-dominated "Education Coalition" would claim about 40 percent of the proceeds under a ballot measure that it got enacted in 1988. Health advocates will thus be forced to make the tax boost much bigger than they need — risking voter rejection.

Reach Dan Walters at dwalters@sacbee.com.