The sad state of California’s direct democracy

Hiram Johnson, the progressive governor who championed the ballot initiative, served as California’s chief executive from 1911 to 1917.
Hiram Johnson, the progressive governor who championed the ballot initiative, served as California’s chief executive from 1911 to 1917. Library of Congress

California’s experiment in direct democracy began with such high expectations and noble goals a century ago.

In 1911, Gov. Hiram Johnson, the Progressive father of the initiative process, devoted much of his inaugural address to the concept of giving people the power to make their own laws. It would be “the first step in our design to preserve and perpetuate popular government,” he said.

“And while I do not by any means believe the initiative, the referendum and the recall are the panacea for all our political ills, yet they do give to the electorate the power of action when desired, and they do place in the hands of the people the means by which they may protect themselves.”

Here we are, 105 years later, and the initiative process, though not wholly owned by moneyed interests, is rented by the election. So far, they have spent $350 million to shape the law to their liking, or stop their enemies from using the ballot as a cudgel against them.

They are plastic bag makers who want to stop California from banning flimsy plastic bags that litter our state. And they are civil libertarians, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs who want to legalize marijuana.

California voters, a savvy bunch, typically reject two-thirds of the ideas presented to them. They should take their usual skeptical view of the 17 on the Nov. 8 ballot.

They are public employee unions, doctors, dentists and hospital executives who seek to raise tobacco taxes by $2 per pack to increase Medi-Cal reimbursement rates and fund anti-smoking programs, and the tobacco companies that know a price hike will cost them customers.

They are unions and hospitals that seek to tax the income of the wealthiest Californians to help pay for schools and health care, and a wealthy Southern California AIDS activist who qualified an initiative that would require pornographic actors to use condoms.

Accustomed to the manipulation and half-truths offered by initiative consultants, California voters, a savvy bunch, typically reject two-thirds of the ideas presented to them. They should take their usual skeptical view of the 17 on the Nov. 8 ballot.

Ads have been cut, airtime has been purchased, and mailers have been printed. Slate cards aimed at subsets of voters – Latino Democrats, elderly or gay people, environmentalists, fiscal conservatives, combinations of all of the above – will arrive in mailboxes soon. Campaigns paid good money, $4.48 million, to slate card owners for those endorsements.

As Henny Youngman might say, take Proposition 61. Please. Funded by one individual, Michael Weinstein and his AIDS Healthcare Foundation, Proposition 61 seeks to tie drug prices to prices paid by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Drug companies have amassed almost $89 million to defeat the measure, including $150,000 paid to a Sacramento lobbyist for veterans and a former U.S. Veterans Affairs secretary, and spread another $8,800 spread among veterans groups.

In the drug-company-funded ads, veterans warn voters that the initiative would raise veterans’ cost of drugs. Whether that claim is true or not, voters like veterans and tend to believe them. Not to be outdone, Proposition 61’s backers paid $50,000 to some other veterans, who, not surprisingly, support the measure.

Because people trust doctors, ads for various measures feature sincere-seeming people in lab coats, generally with stethoscopes slung over their shoulders. One such man urges you to vote for the California Hospital Association-sponsored Proposition 52. Hospitals have invested $52 million in the campaign to ensure they receive about $1 billion annually in federal aid.

Altria, R.J. Reynolds and a smattering of other tobacco and e-cigarette companies, knowing that price increases will cost them customers, have spent $66.3 million to defeat Proposition 56, the $2-per-pack tobacco tax hike. Philip Morris USA and its related entities alone have given almost $41 million to the opposition campaign.

Tobacco companies enlisted a white-haired doctor to appear on commercials urging voters to turn down the tax. They’re not paying him. But the doctor is chairman of the Amador County Republican Party, and the tobacco companies have given $1.87 million to the California Republican Party in the past three weeks.

Doctors also want you to vote for the tobacco tax, though the latest Yes-on-56 ads feature billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer denouncing the tobacco industry and urging people to support the tax. Steyer gave $2.3 million to the Yes-on-56 campaign last week. Money ensures certain privileges. The face time won’t hurt if Steyer runs for governor in 2018.

Hospitals, doctors and others who stand to gain from the added revenue have spent $30 million, but that’s a pittance compared to the $1 billion a year the tax could generate.

It’s all about return on investment. Public employee unions have spent $53 million to pass Proposition 55, to extend the 2012 income tax hike for an additional 12 years. The tax would generate as much as $9 billion a year to be divided among public schools, community colleges and hospitals.

Californians like the initiative process but dislike most initiatives, typically rejecting two-thirds of them. That’s probably wise. People who write the checks control what’s in the measures, smart consultants package them well, and even seemingly well-intentioned initiatives result in unintended consequences.

On general principle? We’d say vote against all of them. Initiatives are blunt instruments, and legislation tends to be more effective when electeds negotiate the fine print and their staffs extricate the devil from the details.

But a few ballot measures do have redeeming qualities, and so we recommend a few “yes” votes, fully realizing California would survive fine without them, and knowing ol’ Hiram Johnson would be appalled at what has become of his grand idea.

Correction: An earlier version incorrectly stated the amount of money spread by the No-on-61 campaign to veterans groups. It was $8,800 as of last week.