Taking the initiative

If you want to understand the state ballot measures, don’t ask John

I was walking into Trader Joe’s Sunday afternoon when a young man standing in front of the store, circulating state ballot petitions, asked me if I had some time to spare. My inner political wonk was curious, so I ambled over.

He was a friendly guy, mid-20s I guessed, with curly red hair and a short reddish beard. I soon learned his name was John, and that he considered himself a proud professional signature gatherer who could be relied on to explain the complexities of each initiative.

That was good, because it takes a legal genius to understand these things, which are written in a lawyerly bafflegab that takes years to learn. I wasn’t sure where John picked up that skill, but I was glad he knew what he was doing.

Until I realized he didn’t know what he was doing.

That revelation occurred as John was explaining an initiative, one of about six he was pushing, that calls for elimination of the redistricting commission created as a result of Proposition 11. That reform measure, which voters approved in November 2008, corrects one of the glaring conflicts of interest in state politics: having legislators draw their own districts—that is, pick their own voters. It gives the job of redistricting to a neutral commission instead.

The new measure—which doesn’t mention Prop 11—would disband the commission and give redistricting back to legislators. It’s a cynical power grab sponsored by lawmakers of both parties to make sure their districts are safe.

That’s not how John explained it, however. He said it would disband the commission because the law giving the commission authority to act hadn’t passed, so it had no work to do.

My attempt to explain Proposition 11 fell on deaf ears. “I worked that initiative,” John insisted, his voice rising. “I know what was on it. You’re wrong, man.”

I was starting to feel silly, arguing with John in front of Trader Joe’s, so I picked a couple of compatible petitions to sign. Yes, I would like to get rid of gridlock in Sacramento by allowing budgets to be approved by a majority vote, not a two-thirds vote. Yes, I would like to see an $18 surcharge added to vehicle license fees to pay for the state parks (in return for free admission to them).

And, no, I don’t want to give redistricting back to the Legislature, thank you.

The Secretary of State’s Office has approved nearly 80 measures for circulation this year. Not all will make it onto the ballot, but those that do so will be complex and difficult to understand.

That’s disturbing. One of the reasons state government is so dysfunctional is because we’ve passed so many troublesome initiatives that make it difficult for lawmakers to do their jobs effectively.

And voters aren’t getting the information they need to make wise choices. My advice: Read the initiative descriptions very, very carefully. Remember that big-bucks interests are behind most of them. And if the guy flogging the petitions is named John, ignore what he says about them. He’s as confused as the rest of us.