We've known for years that the California initiative process, far from fulfilling the expectations of its Progressive movement fathers, has become a playpen for the same forces it was supposed to stop.
But it's rarely been as obvious as it was this year when virtually all the money for and against ballot measures, approaching $400 million at last count about $40 per voter has come from millionaires and billionaires, from insurance companies, from public employee unions and from other deep-pocketed interest groups.
The clincher as we now know was the $11 million from the brothers Koch? from Karl Rove? from people, maybe, that no one has ever heard of? which flowed through the pipeline of money laundries calling themselves nonprofits and into Joel Fox's wonderfully named Small Business Action Committee.
What all that tells, however, is a more significant story. In our distrust of government, politicians and parties, we've delivered ourselves ever more into the loving care of PACs and other private interest groups who are happy to fan and manipulate that distrust. Now, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, we may have ever more difficulty in knowing who's trying to jerk us around.
It didn't work perfectly this year and in a couple of cases may indeed have backfired. That anonymous $11 million probably helped Gov. Jerry Brown pass Proposition 30, his tax-the-man-behind-the tree ballot measure. Proposition 32, the union-busting initiative that was the main beneficiary of the money, got clobbered 55 percent-45 percent.
The big spenders lost, but in most cases only because the other side had even bigger spenders. The biggest exception was Proposition 33, the phony insurance rate gambit on which Mercury General Chairman George Joseph and his friends in the industry spent upwards of $14 million against the nickels and dimes of the opposition.
But none of that is likely to deter the big spenders. It hasn't in the past and won't in the future. A whole industry campaign consultants, lawyers, signature collecting outfits, pollsters, ad and media experts depends on it.
The California initiative process was never as pure as its authors and backers hoped. A century ago, after voters wrote the initiative, recall and referendum into the state constitution, C.K. McClatchy, the editor of this newspaper and a friend of Gov. Hiram Johnson, the Progressive sponsor of those reforms, cheered the achievement:
"Big Business," McClatchy wrote in 1913, "the Interests, the Southern Pacific, the grasping and greedy public service corporations, the unclean and vile in politics these no longer dominate in the halls of legislation. The money changers the legions of Mammon and Satan these have been lashed out of the temple of the people." No doubt where he stood.
But the expectations were always dreamy. As some critics had warned almost from the start, the legions of Mammon and Satan soon learned to use the initiative, and within a generation it was on the road to commercialization. Now the big rollers trying to influence policy are convinced that often it's more cost-efficient to play initiative politics than to buy legislators one at a time.
And along the way the voters have contributed mightily to the mess. The system that is still the most transparent despite much griping about backroom deals and other statehouse shenanigans is the everyday process of legislation and the elections that produce the people who engage in it. For the most part, you can see the sausage being made.
In the past three decades, we've rendered that system increasingly unmanageable, with supermajority requirements, with term limits, with ballot-box spending formulas, and with any number of other restrictions on legislative discretion. And as this election showed, the more we cripple the parties, the more PACs and other independent expenditure groups move into the vacuum.
Bob Stern, the wise former director of the Center on Governmental Studies and a thoughtful defender of the initiative process, used to say that whatever its faults, the voters never regretted their decisions on ballot measures.
But that has been changing: We loosened the term-limits law passed in 1990, we're rapidly changing our minds on same-sex marriage, narrowly prohibited by Proposition 8, and this week we liberalized the "three-strikes" sentencing law.
And, of course, we don't know how many other ballot-box decisions might have been undone if some other deep pocket had come along to give voters the chance. Which is part of the problem. In California's one-of-a kind initiative system, when we make mistakes at the ballot box, the mistakes are locked in concrete until some other deep-pocket ponies up the $3 million to get a fix on the ballot if ever.
The fat cats get to play. Ordinary folks don't even get to the table. We sure learned that again this week.