2012 State ballot measures: A legislative wake-up call

The Critic Who Counts

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Seriously. Can the state Legislature please just figure it out?

With about 30 weeks of time for legislative action in 2012, you’d think California’s representatives in Sacramento could get a few things done.

But you’d be wrong.

This year’s official voter information guide is almost 150 pages long. No, it doesn’t contain a free copy of “Fifty Shades of Grey.” It’s really that long — chock-full of opinions, statistics, statements from U.S. Senate candidates, a voter bill of rights and the full text of every proposed law on the Nov. 6 ballot.

The full text? Really? The precise reason California and the rest of the United States of America have a representative democracy is because direct democracy doesn’t work on a large scale. Students at UC Berkeley have classes, parties, clubs, intramurals, social events and a future to look after. Californians have jobs, families and lives to live. The text of Proposition 31 alone is about eight pages. Did the Legislature think its precious voter guide would actually get read? By anyone?

California adopted the initiative and referendum system at the state level in 1911 under progressive governor Hiram Johnson. At the time, government was corrupt and entrenched with the moneyed interests of the day. Sacramento needed reform, and direct democracy was California’s ticket out of the Gilded Age.

Today, though, California’s initiative-referendum process is fundamentally broken.  Innumerable petitions-become-ballot-initiatives have swamped the state with complex, often contradictory mandates.

Take Proposition 40, a referendum on the redistricting efforts of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission. Until July, state Republicans opposed the new district lines by asking for a “no” vote on the proposition — until the California Supreme Court surprised everyone with a ruling that forces the new districts to be used in November elections but would nullify that decision if Prop. 40 passes. Anticipating the political chaos that would arise from such a situation, California Republicans rescinded their support for the redistricting challenge. The thing is, Prop. 40 is still on the ballot. It’s now up to the voters to decide California’s uncertain electoral future — as if the people of California are somehow more qualified to decide what a well-drawn district map looks like.

Basically, the Legislature couldn’t get its act together this year — just as last year and the year before. Big decisions on issues like funding for education and campaign finance regulation couldn’t get made in-house — so they got kicked to the voters. What’s on the ballot in 2012? One proposition has bipartisan support, two address the same problem in minutely different ways and seven more are filled with pathetically convoluted and overly complex political rubbish.

I’ve argued in the past that the United States — California and UC Berkeley included — has a problem with voter intelligence. And it’s true that too many voters don’t meet their civic responsibility. But California voters cannot be walking computers. We cannot recite complex state law from memory or be expected to understand the issues surrounding nine initiatives and one referendum in a single election. There are problems in California that voters should never be asked to address. We pay people for that.

Maybe it’s time for a new kind of referendum: the referendum on referendums. Kissing precious power goodbye is never easy, but California voters have proven their lack of qualifications when it comes to governing the largest state in the union.

The Legislature shouldn’t be so pathetically ineffective that it dodges the hard questions and punts them to voters. But perhaps it shouldn’t have the option of passing off all the heavy lifting to the people in the first place.

The buck doesn’t stop with the people of California — so let’s stop pretending. It’s time to demand a Legislature that can function without parental supervision, write laws without tutoring and swallow a dose of healthy introspection without getting self-destructive.

It’s time for the Legislature to grow up and do something.

Image Source: Gravitywave via Creative Commons

Contact Connor Grubaugh at [email protected]