On Wednesday, as Tim Eyman's latest anti-tax initiative was cleared for the ballot in Washington, national headlines were dominated by California's continuing inability to close a monstrous $26 billion budget deficit.
Hello! Is anyone connecting the dots here?
What is happening in California is the ultimate payoff from citizen initiatives that over the past 30 years have ordered the government to fund very expensive programs — while at the very same time making it virtually impossible to raise the money to pay for them.
The process has brought to California — and Washington and Oregon — a totally dysfunctional system that primarily serves initiative hustlers like Eyman, who make their living by convincing deep-pockets businessmen and a host of ordinary folk to pay them as a sort of government-in-exile.
In California, as Gary Kamiya points out in an article for Salon, voters have used initiatives to (for example): mandate high state support for local schools and a "three strikes" measure that has forced the state to build and operate huge prisons. But neither initiative carried any new revenue. They were "free lunch initiatives," ordering the Legislature to come up with the billions. At the same time, other initiatives required any tax measure to pass with two-thirds legislative majorities.
Does this sound like Washington and Oregon?
Initiatives were a product of the Progressive Movement in the early 20th Century; yes, Virginia, there were progressives long before Barack Obama. Initiatives were intended to fight corrupt legislatures dominated by big railroads, big timber, and big banks. They have been useful over the years to pass legislation supported by a lot of voters but too controversial for legislators to handle (recent examples: "death with dignity," medical marijuana, and same-sex marriage). But when initiatives involve complex financial issues, the system breaks down, as it has in California.
Initiatives carry simple, appealing titles, generally emphasizing tax reductions. Only a tiny fraction of voters ever get beyond the title or the clever promotions behind them. But the devil is in the details, and once the measures go into effect there are always unexpected consequences, often quite serious. Once passed, these measures are very difficult to repeal, even though legislatures normally could amend them two years after enactment. (A rare case was in 2008 in Oregon, where voters drastically reduced the draconian limits they had placed on land-use laws a few years earlier)
Washington will face another Eyman measure this fall, I-1033, and once again beleaguered voters will be asked to trust in an appealing ballot title, without the foggiest notion of how the measure will work. Anyone who tells you he or she knows how it will work is conning you; the more complex an initiative, the greater the chance that it will turn out badly. Media are now totally fragmented and there is no single source for objective analysis of ballot measures. Television's drive-by focus on mayhem and celebrities long ago opted out of serious election coverage.
Initiatives are always touted as the ultimate in democracy and, in theory at least, they are democratic tools, allowing voters to assert their will. But they too often violate democracy in their details, such as allowing for a rule by a simple majority; and Washington's I-960 (another Eyman tool) and similar initiatives in Oregon and California are the worst examples.
These initiatives required legislative super-majorities (60 or 67 percent) to pass tax measures, in effect giving a determined minority in the legislature a veto power unless the measures are referred to voters. The super-majority cuts the floor out from under bipartisan legislating, as lines harden around the majority or minority. California is desperately polarized politically, heavily Democratic in statewide voting but very anti-tax and anti-government in Republican districts. In better times, when party affiliations were less polarized, a core of centrists from both parties could craft long-range plans that involved both spending and revenue. Today's deep divisions date roughly to the polarizing effects of the Reagan Era (government is not the solution, it is the problem) and the parallel rise of powerful public-employee unions and gerrymandered districts that entrench party extremes.
Caught in the middle are the school children and college students of all three Pacific Coast states, where public education once ranked as the best in the nation.
Initiatives dating to Proposition 13 in California (1978), targeted local property taxes, which were rising rapidly. Public schools depended on property taxes for most of their support. But as local property taxes were reduced by initiatives, the state was forced to pick up a burden it had never carried to that level. Public employee unions, now focused on a single target, the legislature, rather than hundreds of school districts, pressed for adequate funding and backed initiatives to require specific education programs, ranging from pre-school programs to smaller classroom sizes.
As legislators pushed to resolve this dilemma, there were few places to balance the budget, because voters had also passed initiatives expanding prisons and requiring long, mandatory sentences. All governmental agencies saw costs rise as the costs of health care and other fringe benefits increased.
Several governmental programs use dedicated funds (transportation is the major example) that can be spent only for certain purposes, not to balance a general state budget. One place to cut is higher education, which serves only a minority of families rather than the majority. Washington, Oregon, and California are now to a dangerous degree depending on other states (or nations) to educate their work force.
The effect on legislative governance is profound. Legislators are reduced to focusing on often-minor social issues and regulations because they lack the power to deal with a broken budget and tax system. Building bipartisan coalitions requires a measure of trust and goodwill, and in today's polarized political climate those who sacrifice political labels to build coalitions are easily targeted by vicious election campaigns waged by partisans of left and right.
The process of governing is dominated by the non-elected and the minority. Kamiya, the Salon writer, describes the effect in California: "By sidelining elected officials, it achieves the worst of both worlds: It gives ordinary citizens, who lack requisite expertise, institutional memory and accountability, too much power, and then forces legislators to clean up their mess — except that because of ideological gridlock and the supermajority requirement, they can't."
In reality, we do not have a democratic system of government. We have a system where the strongest players are non-elected initiative entrepreneurs and their sponsors, and a small but determined corps of elected ideologues using the super-majority to thwart the will of the majority.
As voters realize that the people they elect have no power to act, they are more likely to turn to alternative means, the most seductive being the initiative. The circle is complete. Washington is not yet California, or even Oregon, but we would do well to heed what is happening to our neighbors to the south.