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Unbreaking the initiative system...

A few more thoughts.

The initiative system was a populist program. It put power in the hands of the people in the days when legislators were bought and paid for by corporate and business interests, and represented them rather than the citizens who elected them.

It worked for a while.

Before Prop13, initiatives were last-ditch efforts to correct the failures of the legislature. After Prop13, the failure of the legislature was just assumed, and initiatives sprouted like weeds.

We've titled and qualified more initiatives in the last 30 years (less than 30, actually) than in the first nearly 70 years of the initiative. By a factor of 2. We've passed as many initiatives in the last 30 years than in the same period. That's crazy.

These days all it takes to title and qualify an initiative is money. We're no longer in the realm of bought-and-paid-for officials, because the folks with money can buy the system and buy the signatures.

This is even better than buying legislators. It's a riskier expenditure, but the benefits are forever. The voluntary prescription drug benefit program that the drug companies were trying to buy would have been forever. No pesky legislative attempts to tamper with it, and perhaps make it mandatory instead of voluntary. It cost them, and they didn't win, but neither did they lose.

Here's the quandry.

From historian Jules Tygiel:
IF GOV. ARNOLD Schwarzenegger really wants to "blow up the boxes" in Sacramento, he should sponsor one two-line initiative:

"There shall be no further initiatives.

"All previous initiatives may be modified by a majority vote of the Legislature."

I think there's still a need for an initiative process to correct failures of our elected officials...

...but I think that giving initiative statutes perpetual protection is crazy. This makes legislation by initiative desirable to absolutists who don't like the idea that the will of the people may change over time so choose to cast a moment's feelings into "the will of the people." This actually makes reform involving anything where an initiative is concerned more difficult.

The initiative process is a good stick to use on elected officials who aren't serving their constituents (including the constituents who voted against them).

I'd love to see a "sunset" on all initiative statutes. Not one that expires the statute, but one that after 10 years allows the statute to be modified by a majority vote of the legislature. That would allow the people to temporarily take power away from elected officials and show that we're not happy with their performance or their position on an issue. If opinions change, the legislature has room to tinker in a decade. If opinions don't change and the legislature tries to tinker, it can be qualified and approved again. It's a tool to show your representative that they're not representing you.

It's not an alternative to representative government, though.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 9th, 2005 03:49 pm (UTC)
Maybe, but if the Legislature decides to tinker, it should be subject to voter approval.
Nov. 9th, 2005 04:11 pm (UTC)
That's not a change at all. That's just another initiative automatically created by the legislature and would only suffice to flood the next ballot.

Why are initiative statutes (like diamonds) "forever?"

They're protected so the legislature can't just go straight back in change things right away. Having a sunset would still provide that protection. If an initiative was being enacted because of corruption or failure in state government, it would lock in some time for the membership of the legislature to change.

It would, though, remove the iniative as a replacement for legislation by our elected representatives, and it would make it somewhat less attractive to our elected representatives to abdicate their responsibility to the initiative process.
Nov. 9th, 2005 04:26 pm (UTC)
Since the chances of what you propose passing is asymtotic to zero, I'm only willing to cogitate on this speculation a little bit.

Initiatives are like diamonds because the legislature has proven that it will habitually coddle to private interests. That the initiative process is broken I will not deny, but I'm not so sure your solution will fix it. Were it possible to prohibit paying people to gather signatures, it may be a step in the right direction, but thats not going to happen either.

In any event, history shows that initiatives that lose invariably end up on the ballot again in a future special/primary/off year election, and again, until it passes. Then the court gets to deal with it. Like it or not, the broken promise process is here to stay.
Nov. 9th, 2005 04:41 pm (UTC)
Remember, I grew up in Wisconsin and did very well in civics; I'm an heir to a long populist progressive political history.

I'll argue that there is such a thing as a "private interest;" everybody has interests and calling a group "private" is just a way of saying "my interests are legitimate, but these folks aren't." Call them what they are: groups with money. Then argue with the agenda they're trying to set.

I will agree that techniques for seeing your interests satisfied vary from naive to skilled to abusive. The naive rarely get what they want, the skilled sometimes get what they want and the abusive always get what they want. The abusive have found a way to abuse the initiave process now, so we can keep it and the abuses, get rid of it and the abuses (but that leaves other avenues still open to abuse) or pare it back to preserve the good while making abuse less profitable.

Most folks who can afford to buy qualify an initiative can afford to do so more than once. We'll see some of these come around again.
Nov. 9th, 2005 05:09 pm (UTC)
Private Interests:Those with Money := Tomato:Tomato

I am in full accord with your statements here.
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 9th, 2005 09:51 pm (UTC)
Constitutional changes already require 2/3 majority. The thing is an initiative statute practically is the equivalent of a constitutional change; only the fact that the courts can overturn an initiative statute if it's unconstitutional gives them less permanence.
Nov. 9th, 2005 08:47 pm (UTC)
I must say it's all very surprising to me, coming from Pennsylvania where they don't do this kind of stuff. I mean, there was something on the ballot here that overturned a previous initiative that overturned a previous initiative. I mean, isn't this like double jeopardy or something? How many times can each side bring something to the ballot over and over and over again, each time it being at the whim of "the will of the people," as fickle as that is? It seems to me there should, indeed, be limits.
Nov. 9th, 2005 09:52 pm (UTC)
California government is pretty fucked up.
Nov. 10th, 2005 07:36 am (UTC)
Considering the screwed-up stuff that has passed in California and Colorado, I've been VERY glad that Wisconsin doesn't have "the initiative".
Nov. 10th, 2005 01:08 pm (UTC)
Oh, there are folks on the right (and left) pushing for it here.
Nov. 18th, 2005 03:56 pm (UTC)
The whole electricity deregulation thing should have taught us, as well, that initiatives can be drafted by short-sighted imbeciles as well as by "experts", and that initiatives are more likely to have unintended consequences than legislature-passed laws are, because the standards to which they are written are lower. That combined with the greater difficulty in overturning them means vote "yes" only with great caution.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )