A Modest Proposition

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Everyone does it.

The Los Angeles Times, the Democratic and Republican parties, churches, women’s and other special interest groups do it.

Last week, Newport Indy columnists Scott Peotter and Bob Schmidt did it.

I wanted to do it, too: I wanted to come up with a convenient list of how I think you should vote on the 11 propositions on this November’s ballot.

To this end, I had collected a considerable stack of information on each of the propositions and what various groups have to say about them. I was, in fact, sorting through my notes when I happened to have a phone conversation with Bob Rush, the Democratic candidate for the 74th Assembly District.

As we discussed Sacramento politics, he asked whether I had read the The Economist’s April 2011 cover story on the subject. I had not.

I later clicked on the link Rush emailed and found the article, headlined “Where It All Went Wrong: A Special Report on California’s Dysfunctional Democracy.” The report offers a superb analysis of how the state’s government got into the mess it’s in.

Like many people, I’d long been uneasy about California’s use of initiatives (aka propositions) to effect legislation. The report helped me clarify those concerns. It also changed my mind about the best purpose of today’s column.

Most Californians know that our state’s unusual form of direct democracy has been around for a century. This empowerment of citizens to initiate laws through propositions was done with the best of intentions, given that by the late 1800s the Southern Pacific Railroad essentially ran the state and corruption of our political infrastructure was rampant.

The new system worked reasonably well – propositions were fairly few until the late 1970s. But Prop. 13 changed all that. Sold to voters in1978 as property tax relief – a way to keep grandma in her home — by its “mad as hell” supporters led by Howard Jarvis, Prop. 13 brought a sea change to the state’s governance.

The Economist terms Prop. 13 “[a] case study in unintended consequences.” The report notes this irony: “Mr. Jarvis and his supporters thought of themselves as small-government conservatives. A central tenet of American conservatism is to decentralize power. But one unintended consequence of Proposition 13 was ‘the centralization of virtually all finance in Sacramento,’ says Lenny Goldberg, director of the California Tax Reform Association.”

(It’s also worth noting that Prop. 13 covers not just people’s homes but commercial properties, permitting the now-grandfatherly Donald Bren’s Irvine Company to enjoy tax benefits far beyond those of the grandmas of the 1970s. Thanks a lot, conservatives!)

The propositions that have proliferated since 1978 have undermined the legislative process further. “The initiative process … became an industry and a circus,” according to The Economist, which adds that “more than 100 of the initiatives of the past two decades promised something for nothing, such as cutting a tax or expanding a service.”

As reform adviser Nathan Gardels puts it, California has become a “diet-Coke civilization of consumer democracy, of services without taxes, like sweetness without calories, of rights without duties.”

Whew.

Despite much evidence to the contrary, I remain an optimist – but that fails me when I consider California’s grand experiment with direct democracy. As it stands now, the Legislature is hog-tied by the tangle of restrictions caused by propositions now on the books.

You want to know what’s wrong with public education funding? The Economist argues that the string of propositions launched after Prop. 13 has “made the overall structure for education funding incomprehensible.”

What’s needed, then, are not more propositions but comprehensive reform of our state government. Groups are working on this – the Think Long Committee for California, for example.

Another possibility is a constitutional convention that would address the exponential dysfunction of Sacramento. Other states hold them; California hasn’t held one since 1879. Without that, nobody we send to Sacramento – Democrat or Republican – is going to be able to work effectively.

Given all this, I’d like to propose a “no” to all current and future propositions, but life isn’t black-and-white. For me, humanitarianism demands a “yes” on Prop. 34 (the repeal of the death penalty) and a “yes” on Prop. 36 (a revision of the ill-conceived Three Strikes Law).

I’m also holding my nose and voting for the Band-Aids that are Prop. 30 (Temporary Taxes to Fund Education) and Prop. 38 (Tax to Fund Education and Early Childhood Programs). It’s a lousy way to fund education, but right now it’s the only system we’ve got.

As for the rest of the propositions, please make time to read and reflect on “Where It All Went Wrong” at economist.com/printedition/2011-04-23. Then consider whether you truly understand what you’re voting for or against. If you don’t, vote “no.”

The unintended consequences from propositions once deemed a good idea have wrought a terribly high cost – we need to stop the insanity.

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