Bill Whalen

Initiative system needs some fixes

Voter stickers are readied at the Sacramento County registrar of voters office for the June primary. Bill Whalen says 17 measures on the November ballot is too many for voters to take.
Voter stickers are readied at the Sacramento County registrar of voters office for the June primary. Bill Whalen says 17 measures on the November ballot is too many for voters to take. The Associated Press

With all due respect to the terrible wildfires, there’s another tragedy awaiting California’s landscape: A vast number of trees giving their lives to November voter information guides.

I’m not good at math, but it’s my understanding that a lone tree produces about 8,000 sheets of paper. Given that a voter information guide can run in the neighborhood of 150 to 200 pages, that’s a lot of shade sacrificed for what, in theory at least, is a good cause.

California could devote some of the budget surplus to arboreal replanting. Or we could revisit the Golden State’s experiment in direct democracy, now in its 11th decade.

First, let’s do something about the clogged drain that is the statewide November ballot – 17 initiatives, described by an East Coast publication as “sex, guns, drugs, death.”

Seven times previously in the past four decades, we’ve been at 17 or more on a single ballot. We got there again in part because Gov. Jerry Brown and a Democratic Legislature made the June primary an initiative no-fly zone.

Their stated reason was that initiatives deserve a larger number of voters. What they didn’t say is that the larger the electorate in California, the more likely that conservative ideas wither and liberal causes flourish.

The first fix is to restore the June option, where about half of this year’s measures would have landed. There’s a nice symmetry to this: 45 years ago, when he was secretary of state, Brown decided that initiatives could go on primary ballots. Why not come full circle and restore the same access?

The second concern is ballot qualification. Under current law, petitions for initiative statutes must collect signatures equal to at least 5 percent of the vote in the most recent gubernatorial election. For constitutional amendments, the bar is set at 8 percent.

Given the historically awful turnout in 2014 (42 percent, down from nearly 60 percent in 2010), that meant only 365,880 signatures were necessary for initiatives in this election and only 585,407 for constitutional amendments.

The fix: Base signatures on California’s total registered voters. For 2016, that would have meant thresholds of 885,000 for initiatives and 1.4 million for constitutional amendments. That should thin the herd.

A third change is to add sunset provisions to initiatives – for the sake of argument, a 40-year expiration date.

We’re soon approaching the fourth decade of historic Proposition 13 and the sea change in California property taxes. The 2018 election will mark the 30th anniversary of Proposition 98 and state education spending mandates.

Why not put a trigger in the law giving future generations a chance to review past decisions?

One final suggestion – and it may sound strange coming from someone with a Republican pedigree. Given that we may soon hit another recession, let’s redirect some of the cash cow that is California’s initiative cottage industry into the state’s coffers.

As reported a week ago by the Los Angeles Times, almost $200 million has been collected for the campaigns orbiting the 17 ballot measures. That total could climb as high as $500 million as the tobacco and gun lobbies, drug companies, California’s teachers unions play to win.

Free speech says we can’t control what these special interests devote to their causes. But why not a tax on the vacation home of every political consultant who’s making a killing off this initiative overkill?

Call it what it is – a sin tax.

Bill Whalen is a Hoover Institution research fellow and former speechwriter for Gov. Pete Wilson. Whalen can be reached at