Direct democracy in action

Celebrating 100 years of the citizens’ initiative

As this graph shows, the use pattern of the initiative process has changed over time. Since the 1970s, the number of measures circulated has grown considerably, while the percentage of those qualifying and approved has fallen.

As this graph shows, the use pattern of the initiative process has changed over time. Since the 1970s, the number of measures circulated has grown considerably, while the percentage of those qualifying and approved has fallen.

Graph courtesy of the public policy institute of california

Nobody popped open the bubbly because of it, but Oct. 10, 2011, marked the centennial of one of the most significant events in California history—passage of a constitutional amendment that gave voters the power to enact legislation through the initiative process, or “direct democracy,” as it’s sometimes called.

All told, 347 initiatives have qualified for the statewide ballot. Of them, 116, or 33 percent, have been approved, including 50 constitutional amendments.

From measures cutting property taxes and instituting term limits to ones ending bilingual education, protecting chickens and legalizing medical marijuana, the initiative process has changed Californians’ lives in significant and diverse ways.

The initiative’s centennial hasn’t gone entirely unnoticed, at least locally. On Sunday afternoon, a group of progressive and environmental activists, along with a number of Butte Creek Canyon residents, gathered at the Arc Pavilion to celebrate two events: the 100th anniversary of the initiative and the 30th anniversary of the successful referendum overturning the county’s approval of a large condominium project in Butte Creek Canyon.

Actually, it was also the centennial of the referendum, inasmuch as it and the initiative were passed simultaneously as part of the original 1910 progressive reform. What I wanted these progressives to tell me was whether they thought direct democracy was still alive and well.

In recent years, since passage of the tax-cutting Proposition 13 in 1978, the initiative process has become what some have called the “initiative industrial complex.” As the state’s population has grown, so has the number of signatures required, and companies providing expensive services such as signature gathering, legal advice and campaign consulting have become integral parts of the process. Circulation of a petition now costs anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million, and initiative campaigns can cost tens of millions of dollars.

Jon Luvaas, a retired land-use attorney and former Chico planning commissioner, agreed that money plays an ever larger role in qualifying initiatives, but he noted that progressive measures—such as funding for wildlife protection—still find their way onto the ballot.

And if a measure is on the ballot with the support of big money, “I think the people of California are pretty smart” about such things. He cited Propositions 16 and 17 on the June 2010 ballot, sponsored by PG&E and Mercury Insurance, respectively, designed to give the businesses financial advantages. Both companies spent lavishly, and both measures lost by large margins.

The same is true of Proposition 23 on the November 2010 ballot, which sought to overturn California’s historic global-warming act. Although two Texas oil companies bankrolled it to the tune of millions of dollars, nearly two-thirds of voters turned thumbs down.

Mark Stemen, who teaches at Chico State, said he recognized the initiative process, like the rest of politics, had become corrupted, but he added, “I like the initiative process because it’s a way [for citizens] to organize politically. If you didn’t have that, what would you do?”

He pointed to Proposition 215, the medical-marijuana initiative passed in 1996. “That’s clearly something the politicians weren’t going to come up with,” he said.

Luvaas noted that—the problems with the initiative aside—the referendum process remained a local option that is “particularly powerful.” In Butte County, it’s been used to overturn a coal-fired power plant and reject a cooked-up redistricting plan, as well as overturn approval of the canyon condos.

Mike Hawkins, a Democratic Party organizer, said the initiative process should be reformed. “I’d like to see qualification become more difficult,” he said. “There are too many things on the ballot. It gets confusing.”

He also would like the measures’ ballot descriptions to be written in clear layman’s English, not the legal bafflegab now used.

Kelly Meagher, a longtime activist, canyon resident and leader of the 1981 anti-condos effort, said he lamented the influence of money on the initiative process. “I wish we could take it back to where it was originally,” he said.

He sees similarities between the progressive movement that created the initiative process and the current Occupy movement. The former, led by Gov. Hiram Johnson, emerged in response to the corrupt dominance of California politics by monied interests, especially the Southern Pacific Railroad. The sense that the game is rigged, that big-money interests are buying and selling our lawmakers, is also a principal energizer of the Occupy demonstrators.

“It’s all direct democracy,” Meagher said. “The people have a right to stand up and take action.”