California's proposition process

November 3, 2008 7:30:47 PM PST
Besides the presidential race, Californians will flood the polls tomorrow to make decisions on a dozen ballot initiatives.

The proposition process in our state is nearly 100 years old, and it's changed dramatically in that time. But many would say not for the better.

California's ballot has a whopping 12 propositions this time, most sponsored by wealthy special interests.

Nearly half of the more than $175 million raised so far for these campaigns has come from individuals, corporations or groups that gave at least $1 million.

The Humane Society, for instance, sponsored Proposition 2 because the state Legislature blocked efforts for the better treatment of farm animals.

"Millions of animals are suffering, and this is modest reform that the Legislature should have enacted on years ago. But if they're not going to, we will take it to the voters," said Jennifer Fearing from the American Humane Society.

Governor Hiram Johnson championed the initiative process in 1911 because he wanted a grass-roots way for Californians to act when politicians refuse to or to overturn laws the Legislature passed.

It typically takes $4 million just to gather the required hundreds of thousands of valid signatures of a petition -- millions more to get voters to pass or reject it.

Professor Floyd Feeney is an expert on California's initiative process who says Governor Johnson would be shaking his head today.

"He would disliked the fact that money plays such an important role in getting things on the ballot today. Volunteers have a lesser role than they used to," said Professor Feeney, J.D.

Initiatives are risky. Only 32 percent of them have passed since 1912, including the famous Proposition 13, which limited how much property taxes could go up in California.

But even supporters of the initiative process acknowledge the downside.

Opponents to Proposition 2, the farm animal initiative, say it's hard to fix the flaws within poorly written measures.

"You do not get the opportunity for those refinements that may be necessary as time goes on. Almost every body of law has unintended consequences," said Richard Matteis from the California Farm Bureau.

Unless the initiative process is changed, California voters can expect long ballots every election.


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