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Jerry Brown's Political Reboot - James Fallows - The Atlantic

Stashed in: California

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jerry brown...getting stuff done?

I'm as surprised as you are.

The main oddity of California’s system is that any measure that passes by initiative, even by a single vote, can change the state constitution or enact policy beyond the legislature’s power to amend. It would be like the national electorate getting a crack at the First Amendment—­or the Second, or the Fifth—when it went to the polls. “The initiative process in California is a radical form of direct democracy that is absolutely unique,” Carlyle Hall, a prominent public-­interest lawyer with Akin Gump, told me. “In other states, the public shares power with the legislature, through the initiative. In California, with each successive measure, the public takes power for itself and away from the legislature.”

In other states, the legislature can undo or adjust the results of referenda. In California, that is very hard. Thus each proposition becomes part of permanent law, as Prop 13 has—unless it has a sunset provision, as Brown’s new Prop 30 does; or is overturned by another ballot measure, which is rare; or is thrown out by the courts as unconstitutional, which is rarer still but is the basis of the challenge to Prop 8, the anti-gay-marriage measure narrowly approved in 2008.

As every California schoolchild is supposed to learn, these tools of direct democracy were the gift of Governor Hiram Johnson a century ago. He thought they gave ordinary citizens the best hope of offsetting the power of entrenched interests, the most entrenched of which was Southern Pacific. In fact they’ve had the opposite effect, and worse, in a vicious cycle that Mathews and Paul explain and that boils down to this:

  • The legislature is uniquely weak in California, so it doesn’t solve many problems. Because legislators can’t solve many problems, voters punish them by imposing term limits and throwing the bums out.
  • Because of term limits and rapid turnover, the legislature has no institutional memory (in 2004, the then-speaker of the California State Assembly was a freshman—serving under a governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was also entirely new to politics).
  • Because legislators don’t know what they’re doing, they’re more under the control of the permanent influence structure of lobbyists and bureaucrats.
  • Because the public grows steadily less satisfied with what it’s getting from the state government, it turns even more to propositions and initiatives.
  • Because there are so many initiatives, and the provisions are so confusing, and voters are so busy, initiatives have increasingly been sponsored by well-financed interests—­today’s counterparts to Southern Pacific. Even Jerry Brown’s Prop 30 relied on large-scale financing from unions and businesses that wanted to stay on Brown’s good side. “It’s a big state with a lot of voters,” Carlyle Hall told me. “You have to get signatures of at least 5 percent of the voters to get an initiative onto the ballot, and normally the only way to do that is to hire these expensive professionalized firms. So to get your stuff on the ballot, you need money. Who has the money? Usually the very vested interests who were controlling the legislature 100 years ago.”

Thus the cycle of unintended consequences is complete: the rules designed to limit special interests ultimately empower them, while hobbling normal government. “Over thirty years voters slowly squeezed the life out of their legislature but never stopped complaining that it didn’t work,” Mathews and Paul conclude in their book.

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