03 November 2009

Dysfunctional California

Ronald M. George, the chief justice of the California Supreme Court, makes the same argument I've been making for years on this blog - that ballot initiatives put in front of voters have put the state legislature in a straitjacket. Some key points:
One might reasonably ask: Is the voter initiative, in its current form, an impediment to the effective functioning of a true democratic process? The nation's founding fathers, wary of the potential excesses of direct democracy, established a republic with a carefully crafted system of representative democracy.
Meaning, our elected representatives are to make decisions for us. If we feel those representatives are bucking our interests, we have the right to replace them at the next election. More from Chief Justice George:
California's Constitution permits a relatively small number of petition signers - equal to at least 8 percent of the voters in the latest gubernatorial election - to place before the voters a proposal to amend any aspect of our Constitution.

The Legislature (by a two-thirds vote of each house) shares the power to place proposed amendments before the electorate. California, however, is unique among American jurisdictions in prohibiting its Legislature, without express voter approval, from amending or repealing even a statutory measure enacted by the voters unless the initiative itself specifically confers this power.
So, unlike the federal government, where a 2/3 vote of both houses of congress and 3/5 of the fifty state legislatures are needed to amend the Constitution, the California legislature can only vote to put a proposed constitutional amendment before the voters. The office holders themselves are unable, by law, to amend the state constitution directly. More:
Thus it is considerably easier to amend the California Constitution than the U.S. Constitution...

As a result, while only 17 amendments to the U.S. Constitution (in addition to the Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791) have been adopted since that document was ratified in 1788, more than 500 amendments to the California Constitution have been adopted since the document's ratification in 1879.
FIVE HUNDRED AMENDMENTS!! One can easily see how this makes it impossible to govern:
Perhaps most consequential in their impact on the ability of state and local government to function are constitutional and statutory mandates and prohibitions - often at cross-purposes - limiting how elected officials may raise and spend revenue. Lawmakers, and the state itself, have been placed in a fiscal straitjacket by a steep two-thirds-vote requirement - imposed at the ballot box - for raising taxes.

A similar supermajoritarian requirement governs passage of the state budget. This situation is compounded by initiatives imposing constitutional requirements of specified levels of financial support for public transportation and schools. These constraints - when combined with a lack of political will (on the part of some officials) to curb spending and (on the part of others) to raise taxes - often make a third alternative, borrowing, the most attractive option (at least until the bankers say "no").
Alas, being able to change the California constitution with such ease, some rather bogus amendments have been passed:
Initiatives have enshrined myriad provisions into California's constitutional charter, including a prohibition on the use of gill nets and a measure regulating the confinement of barnyard fowl in coops. This last constitutional amendment was enacted on the same 2008 ballot that amended the Constitution to override the California Supreme Court's decision recognizing the right of same-sex couples to marry. Chickens gained valuable rights in California on the same day that gay men and lesbians lost them.
George concludes:
Californians need to consider some fundamental reforms. Otherwise, I am concerned that we shall continue on a course of dysfunctional state government, characterized by a lack of accountability on the part of our officeholders as well as the voting public.
When it comes right down to it, I don't trust the voters to make the important decisions. The onslaught of misinformation from both sides of any issue skew the facts and render an informed decision impossible. More over, the ease at which we are able to amend our state constitution goes against everything America's founding fathers stood for. They understood fully that putting the decision making directly in the laps of the people would lead to the impossible situation California finds herself in today.

The Golden State finds herself falling deeper and deeper into the abyss. We need a total overhaul of the state constitution - a full-fledged convention to re-write the document from scratch. Alas, I know my fellow Californians...and it will probably take a crisis of unfathomable proportions to change how we govern ourselves.