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Robert J. Elisberg

Robert J. Elisberg

Posted: July 9, 2009 10:25 AM

California Propositions Are a Bankrupt Idea


Quite a few years back, I had a debate with a friend. I disliked California's Proposition system, he thought it was great.

I am here to proclaim victory in the debate.

The Proposition System in California, while noble in theory, is an ill-thought out disaster. Somewhat like New Coke, the Edsel and Viet Nam. Miserable failure was the only likely outcome.

It was based on the premise of full-participation democracy of an informed citizenry, but even the Founding Fathers understood that that had its limits. America is not a democracy, it's a representative democracy. This is the concept that most people just want to know where the On switch is for their computer, not how electronics works. When it comes to laws, just pass the things, and if we don't like them, we'll vote you out.

However poorly one thinks of politicians, the Proposition System is worse. It starts with the faulty premise that the voting public is going to willingly study a thick guidebook. The voting public didn't willingly study even thin guidebooks when they were in high school and required to. Instead, with propositions, they turn to watching 30-second TV ads to learn what the laws are about.

Watching 30-second TV ads to learn what a law is about is like reading a fortune cookie and believing that you now understand Eastern Philosophy.

Initially, the Proposition System had its successes mixed among warning signs. That's when the legal equivalent of the San Andreas Fault hit in 1978. Proposition 13 - the most appropriately-numbered law ever. This wasn't just bad luck, this was The Big One.

For years, a crotchety coot named Howard Jarvis would annually try to get some loony proposition passed against having taxes. It was wildly entertaining, though a bit annoying, like watching a rapid dog yowl nightly at the moon. But in 1978, the moon yowled back, and his co-sponsored Proposition 13 actually passed. And the joke was on California.

On the surface, Proposition 13 appeared to be about limits on property taxes. What it actually did was send California crashing to ruin. It wasn't just that revenues plummeted, but that Proposition 13 required a "supermajority" of two-thirds vote in the state legislature for any tax increase.

The resulting problem is that the public keeps voting proposition initiatives to improve the state - yet they vote against bills to pay for it. And the state itself is unable to raise revenues to make up the difference.

(Side note: in the comedy, "Airplane!", a passenger gets in Robert Hayes' cab, just as the cabbie leaps out. That's actually Howard Jarvis. He sits in the taxi the entire movie, the butt of the joke, as the meter keeps running. Alas, talk about a prescient metaphor. California's meter has been running ever since.)

The additional problem with the Proposition System is that, unlike when a legislator puts himself on the line when passing laws, there is no one to vote out of office if a proposition screws things up. No one is responsible. So, the death spiral continues.

The result is that the California budget deficit is now $26.3 billion. The state sent out IOUs last week.

Certainly, there are many causes for the problems California faces today. But the root of the problem is that the California Proposition System is a system that allows reckless action without accountability. And worse, it's a system that increasingly does the very opposite of its original intent of full democratic participation of the public: the more propositions, the less the public wants to study them all - and the fewer people who vote. In the most recent special election this past June, specifically to deal with the state's budget crisis, voter turnout was a paltry 28.4 percent.

Worse still, because of another proposition - term limits - representatives know they have no political future, regardless of what they do in office, so there's no need to work out issues in the state legislature with your opponents, but just vote in self interest. The result is gridlock.

When you let politicians do what you elected them to do - for all the good and ill - at least you are getting 100% of the electorate represented in the results. And if you don't like those results, you can vote your officials out. But with the Proposition System, a mere quarter of the public is at times deciding how the state should be run. Based on watching 30-second TV ads. With no accountability.

How can anyone be shocked to discover that people vote for things they like, vote against paying taxes - and a $26.3 billion deficit is created because a near-impossible two-thirds supermajority is needed to fix things?! And you throw out your leader to bring in an movie actor with no political experience to get you out of the mess.

This is no way to run a democracy.

Make no mistake, it crosses all parties.

In California, majority doesn't rule. It's the tyranny of the minority, but worse it's too often the tyranny of the irrational. The California Proposition System may have begun with a noble intent, but it was ill-conceived, and has become selfish, greedy, mindless, unworkable and a disaster.

There is only one proposition worthy of having on the ballot and voting for. A proposition that would get rid of the California Proposition System.