We certainly understand the hostility that professional politicians exhibit against citizens using the tools of direct democracy. The People’s right of initiative, referendum and recall are effective tools to control an indolent or corrupt legislature.
The powers of direct democracy are enshrined in the California Constitution for reasons that are just as compelling in 2014 as they were in 1911 when Governor Hiram Johnson, seeking to suppress the absolute control the railroads had over the state Capitol, pushed to give ordinary citizens a “legislative battering ram” – using the language of the Supreme Court – to address issues that, for whatever reason, the legislature refuses to address.
Politicians hate the initiative process. From their perspective, it allows the great unwashed and unsophisticated to deal with matters such as taxation, victims’ rights, insurance and, most importantly, political reform. These are issues over which politicians strongly desire to exercise a legislative monopoly.
Like any political process, however, direct democracy can be abused. Some matters are indeed complicated and not well suited to a sound-bite campaign. Also, special interests with a lot of money can overwhelm the airwaves with TV and radio ads to convince a majority of voters (especially in a low turnout election) to pass something they might later regret.
But is the traditional legislative process any better? Hardly. You could write a book on all the bills coming out of the Capitol that have had hugely negative unintended consequences. Perhaps the granddaddy of these is the ill-fated bill from several years ago dealing with energy regulation. Skyrocketing electric bills, bankruptcies and “brownouts” ensued. Californians are still paying the price for that legislative disaster.
As for money corrupting the process, direct democracy is a rookie compared to the California legislature. Indeed, for the legislature to propose a significant weakening of the initiative process now is especially ironic given that three California State Senators have been forced out of office because of perjury convictions or indictments for corruption. This is sort of like the mayor of a small town coming out of a whorehouse to lecture the town drunk on the evils of vice.
Which brings us to the topic at hand. Assembly Constitutional Amendment (ACA) 6 (Gatto) would make it far more difficult for average Californians to use the initiative process. It does so by requiring a 55% vote to amend or revise the Constitution except in a few instances which, at the moment, are too convoluted to explain. But if detractors of direct democracy believe that the process is too susceptible to special interest money now, imagine what it will be like when only the most wealthy and powerful interests will be able to mount the sort of campaign required to obtain the higher vote threshold.
We fail to see what specific problem ACA 6 is designed to correct. If, as Assemblyman Gatto has opined in editorials, the Constitution is too cluttered with provisions that don’t belong there the answer is simple – repeal the stuff that is extraneous. Gatto is wrong in implying that it would take another signature drive to amend the constitution – the Legislature has the power to propose amendments that – of course – would ultimately have to be approved by the voters. But if there are matters that legislators believe don’t belong in the constitution, they have a remedy now.
As a proposed constitutional amendment, ACA 6 itself needs a two-thirds vote of each house to get to the ballot. We certainly hope it doesn’t get that far. But we are indeed troubled that, shortly after amendments were taken on the floor of the Assembly, three Republicans have signed on as co-authors.
We certainly hope that those legislators who recognize that the powers of direct democracy are a bulwark against tyrannical politicians will think twice before signing on to this dangerous proposal.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association — California‘s largest grass-roots taxpayer organization dedicated to the protection of Proposition 13 and the advancement of taxpayers’ rights.