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May 19, 2008

Lacking Initiative

posted by Josh Goodman

Congressional Quarterly sees a trend against ballot initiatives:

Ordinarily this would be a big year for ballot initiatives with the presidential campaign dominating the headlines and emotionally charged issues now convulsing our politics, from the Iraq War to gasoline prices and housing, to last week’s decision from the California Supreme Court to strike down a prior state initiative banning gay marriage.

Instead, the number of initiatives scheduled for state ballots so far this year — just 13 — is far below the count in other presidential election years and continues a downward trend from the peak of 87 in 1996.

Note that this article is only talking about "ballot initiatives," not the broader group of "ballot measures." Ballot measures also include things like state constitutional amendments submitted for a public vote by the legislature, while initiatives only originate from citizen petitions.

The National Conference of State Legislatures says that over 300 ballot measures are under consideration for November 2008. Far more than 13 already have won a spot on the ballot.

So why is the citizen initiative going out of vogue? CQ makes a prescient point:

Although 24 states permit initiatives, many legislatures don’t like them because they short-circuit the usual lawmaking process and can wreak havoc with state budgets if, for instance, they mandate new programs or tax cuts. Some states have imposed ever-stricter requirements for initiatives.



I live in California, where initiatives were introduced as part of the good government initiative of the early 1900's.

They haven't exactly worked out that way. Most initiatives are put forth by special interest groups, sometimes to sabotage the very cause they are supposedly designed to promote.

Like Prop 99, the eminent domain reform measure on the June ballot. It is touted as the "good" eminent domain reform ballot measure, as opposed to Prop 98 the "bad" eminent domain initiative, or so Prop 99's supporters would have you believe. It was sponsored by the League of Cities, and has so many loopholes that it does little to nothing to reform eminent domain. For example, it only protects single family homes, not commercial property which is more often than not what is taken by cities in eminent domain. Private property protection under Prop 98 by contrast is much more comprehensive.

Or take Prop 103, the insurance reform issue from a few years ago. It changed the California Insurance Code to allow banks to sell insurance, but it failed to remove the same prohibition from the Financial Code; it took laywers and courts to sort that mess out.

My fantasy is an Initiative to End All Initiatives; a ballot initiative that would eliminate the ballot initiative as a form of law-making.

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