How the Initiative Culture Broke California

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Racks of firefighting hoses stand behind a voter casting his ballot at Fire Station 38, as people go to the polls for a special election called by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and lawmakers to decide on statewide budget-balancing ballot propositions on May 19, 2009, in Pasadena

Outside a Target store in Orange County, California, Elbie Birch hawks his wares: ballot propositions. "Excuse me, gentlemen, are you registered voters?" Birch, a tall, burly man with a shaved head, goatee and winning smile, is a professional initiative-signature gatherer. In the past year, he has worked on gerrymandering in Florida, a casino issue in Ohio and affordable housing in Massachusetts before coming to California — the undisputed capital of direct democracy — where he is hustling a stack of nine ballot initiatives. Birch gets 50 cents to $1 for every signature he gathers.

In states such as California, Colorado and Oregon, it is hard to think about politics and government without speaking about ballot initiatives — some of which can come crashing down on a state capitol like a tsunami. The so-called Progressive Era in U.S. history (from the 1880s to the 1920s) bestowed the secret ballot and direct elections for the U.S. Senate and the city manager, as well as the initiative, the referendum and the recall. The latter, of course, transformed Arnold Schwarzenegger the movie star into Arnold the Gubernator when the actor became California governor after voters chose to recall Democrat Gray Davis.

The initiative system, however, may have caused the most havoc in California. In 1978, Proposition 13 imposed strict limits on local property taxes, gutting the budgets of schools and local governments, which have been bailed out by Sacramento ever since. It also requires a two-thirds vote to raise taxes, granting antitax Republicans, a minority in the state ;egislature, great power. Proposition 98 requires California to spend 40% of the state budget on public schools, which places enormous pressure on other state programs, such as higher education and the courts. These and numerous others have put California government in something of an ever tightening straitjacket.

And yet the initiative imperative persists. Every five minutes Birch hooks a customer. "My job is to make people aware and to get signatures," says Birch, 44, who earns free board from Professional Petition Consultants if he makes his quota of 1,400 signatures a week. Theresa Williams, 29, is shopping, with 2-year-old Eithan in her cart. Birch approaches her with a measure that would prevent Sacramento from tapping local transportation projects' and municipal governments' coffers to balance the state's chronically unbalanced budget. In quick succession he pitches measures to close a corporate tax loophole, fund the state's parks with an additional $18 charge to vehicle registration, strip the legislators of their paychecks if they are late passing a budget, tighten term limits from 14 years to 12 years, and increase the vote requirement to two-thirds for any state levies and charges currently subject to majority vote.

"No more new taxes without your approval," says Birch. "They'll need two-thirds to pass it." Birch admits he is not aware that California is the only state in the union where it is necessary to obtain a two-thirds majority in the legislature to pass a budget and initiate a new tax. (There is another proposed measure, which Birch is not peddling, that would change the legislative vote required to pass a state budget from two-thirds to a simple majority.) Williams, a regular voter, admits to confusion on many of the initiatives. "I never know what to do. I think representative government is a good thing, but I am one of the few." Angie Sim, 37, likes the tax measures. "Less taxes are better for me." Jessica Moore, a junior in college who supports "green" ballot measures, says, "They push you to sign the initiative, but they don't tell you everything. I think the special interests control the initiative process."

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