California’s progressives became agitated in the heat of recall elections over what they perceived as the evilness of direct democracy, which has been a part of our constitution since the 1900s. The Governor. Hiram Johnson presented the recall, referendum, as well as the initiative, to give people the chance to defeat special interests.
In response to political frustrations, it’s dangerous to take drastic and long-term actions. Governor. Gavin Newsom survived the recall vote by an overwhelming margin. It worked exactly as it was intended. A measure that was approved on the ballot does not automatically mean that majority voters will approve of it.
Newsom was able to act in a sensible manner after his win. He last week vetoed legislation by Sen. Josh Newman (D–Anaheim), who was recalled from office in 2018 and still wants to change the rules. Senate Bill 660 would have forbid campaigns to recall, initiate, or reveal initiatives from paying signature gatherers per signator.
Newsom correctly noted that the bill would “make the qualification of many initiatives cost-prohibitive for all but the wealthiest interests, thereby having the opposite effect.” It would have damaged our direct democracy, which—despite its flaws—remains the best check on our government overseers.
Last week, we also heard of two ballot measures that will be on the 2022 ballot. They embody Gov. Johnson. They’re certainly longshots—but one of the most compelling aspects of the initiative process is that it enables governmental outsiders to force out-of-the-box ideas onto the agenda. It is unquestionably a costly process to collect enough signatures to place measures on the ballot and win a majority of voters.
Californians are free to discuss ideas and concerns that the legislature has not addressed. The first proposal would ban collective bargaining for government workers. To fund water projects, 2 percent would be required from the general-fund revenue of the state each year. This is until 5 million additional acre feet of water supply are available.
“After the Legislature authorized collective bargaining by public employee unions, public employment costs have exploded, including taxpayer-funded pensions and lifetime health benefits not enjoyed by employees in the private sector,” explained the union-related initiative’s official statement.
That’s an accurate description, based on extensive news coverage and audits of public schools, law enforcement agencies, and the state’s administrative agencies. Because of their interest in maintaining the status quo, public-sector unions are often the biggest hurdle to any modest reforms that would improve public services.
The teachers’ unions try to undermine educational alternatives such as charter schools and defend tenure and other employee protections that make it impossible to fire bad teachers or to reward the good ones. For their members, police unions do the same. This has an unsettling impact on public service quality.
The proponent of the project is Tim Draper (Silicon Valley’s billionaire venture capitalist). The unions did not participate in negotiations back in 1976. They were pleased with the results. “California was number one in K-12 education” and #1 as a business location,” he said to me by email. “Now, since the unions have been involved, California has dropped to Number 47 in education and dead last…as a place to do business.”
While he’s correct, it won’t be easy to eliminate all major state unions simultaneously. Draper was the proponent of a 2014 initiative that would have broken California into six states. It never took root, but it was interesting to think about. It got Californians to talk about how our politics today, which focuses power in the two largest metropolitan areas of the country, is a poor choice for the state’s smaller-populated regions.
The water initiative is sure to be less controversial than Draper’s idea given that the drought is a top concern among voters. Already, it is gaining support. The Orange County Water District’s board voted 8-2 to approve it last week. Even Democratic legislators are backing it.
California has had little infrastructure built for water since 1970s when California’s population was only half of its present size. Although revenue bonds are better than general-fund spendings for funding such projects, that is still water under the bridge. We need to do something to assure an adequate amount of future water supplies—rather than resign ourselves to rationing.
Right on cue, the Sierra Club blasted the initiative by telling the OCWD that it would better “funnel its resources towards increasing conservation, storm-water capture…repairing leaks and replacing old pipes” and other green projects. Yet those types of projects—they’re fine, but none would appreciably increase supply—could easily grab funding under the initiative’s guidelines.
Although a robust initiative process does not guarantee that the state will limit the power of the public sector unions and build its water infrastructure, it will at least ensure the citizens have the final say.
This column appeared in The Orange County Register for the first time.