California voters embrace direct democracy, despite its problems

The Kansas City Star

Stockton’s Dean Cortopassi is a wealthy, up-from-the-bootstraps agribusiness giant who began his farming career driving a tractor on his father’s farm at the age of 10. A 2005 editorial in the Stockton Record lauded Cortopassi and his wife, Joan, for their charitable giving and noted, “Some philanthropists prefer working quietly behind the scenes.”

A decade later, Cortopassi has stepped into the spotlight, bankrolling a $4 million signature-gathering effort to qualify a statewide ballot initiative to force a popular vote on large public works projects, including Gov. Jerry Brown’s twin tunnel plan to move water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Should the measure qualify, it could join up to two dozen other measures on a crowded and confusing November 2016 ballot.

California’s direct democracy tools of initiative, referendum and recall were the centerpiece of Gov. Hiram Johnson’s 1910 reform agenda after decades of Southern Pacific’s ruthless domination of commerce and politics. In recent times, Californians have embraced Johnson’s legacy as never before.

A 2008 study by the Center for Governmental Studies concluded, “An emerging culture of democracy by initiative is transforming the electorate into a fourth and new branch of government.” Still, voters complain that the resulting ballots are too long, too complex, and that there’s too much money in the system – more than $2 billion has been spent on ballot measures since 2000. A contradiction? We don’t think so. Like the wandering brother who sometimes irritates us, he’ll always be welcome at the Thanksgiving table. But maybe he could clean up his act a little.

Cortopassi’s measure is among nearly 100 others working their way through the qualification process – including such issues as death (penalty) and taxes, gun control, legalization of recreational marijuana and a minimum-wage boost. Other, less weighty measures would legalize ferrets as pets and expand the 120-member Legislature to more than 11,000 members.

In an effort to mitigate the flaws of legislation by citizen sledgehammer, Brown signed a bill in 2014 that will permit some obvious problems with individual initiatives to be fixed before voters cement them into law. Lawmakers and proponents can now make corrections and compromises after an initiative qualifies for the ballot, if initiative backers agree. Proponents can even withdraw measures after signatures are submitted, if needed to avoid drafting errors and legal confusion. In addition, the names of top financial contributors to ballot measures will be posted online by the secretary of state. All are needed reforms that do nothing to undermine the initiative process.

Money still continues to tarnish the system, however. Courts have refused to limit ballot-measure contributions on the theory that although money might corrupt an individual, it cannot corrupt an idea. The recent changes won’t stop well-heeled special interests from trying to exploit the initiative process for their own financial advantage – whether it’s a company founded by Texas oil king T. Boone Pickens spending nearly $20 million in 2008 to enrich its business interests, or PG&E spending $46 million to restrict competition in 2010. Both failed, but others have succeeded.

Even Hiram Johnson conceded only four years after his historic reforms that “the initiative wasn’t always used properly.” Nevertheless, he rightly defended citizen democracy for Californians such as Dean Cortopassi who have a quarrel with public leaders. For all the headaches they may face with lengthy, complex ballots like the one looming next November, voters long ago embraced Johnson’s view that the initiative, referendum and recall are “the most powerful weapons you will have for your defense and the perpetuity of what you hold dear politically.”

Steve Swatt and Jeff Raimundo, former political journalists and consultants, are coauthors of “Game Changers: Twelve Elections That Transformed California.”