California’s Initiative Ecosystem

Only one initiative in the history of California passed without requiring professional signature gatherers to qualify it; that was the legendary Proposition 13 enacted in 1978 to lower property tax rates. But the lack of funds to take an initiative from concept to ballot to voter-approved law doesn’t discourage initiative proponents from filing them. In California, for a few hundred dollars, anyone can file a state initiative with the Secretary of State, wherein they will have 150 days to gather the required signatures – allowing for an inevitable percentage of disallowed signatures, an initiative that will amend California’s constitution will require (allowing for the inevitable percentage of unverifiable submissions) about 1,000,000 signatures. You can view California’s latest and greatest initiative filings here: Initiatives and Referenda Cleared for Circulation. For more on how to file an initiative, read “Laws governing the initiative process in California,” and “California signature requirements.”

California’s initiative laws have created a political ecosystem, where simply reviewing the dozens, or even hundreds of initiatives that have been filed provides an insightful glimpse into what sentiments roil the body politic. Some of them are the product of fringe groups and fanatics, others are clearly the product of serious and measured analysis, still others are spawned by powerful special interests, often filed as warning shots.

There are currently only six initiatives cleared for circulation that haven’t expired, plus ten more that have recently expired but haven’t been removed yet. Here’s the one most recently filed:  “1475. (10-0022), Creates Special Constitutional Rule for Speech Based on the Bible. Initiative Constitutional Amendment. Summary Date: 10/25/10 | Circulation Deadline: 03/24/11 | Signatures Required: 694,354: Exempts speech based on biblical authority from existing constitutional and statutory restrictions applicable to all other speech, including restrictions against discrimination and hate crimes. Repeals constitutional provision denying protection to acts of religious expression inconsistent with the peace or safety of the State.”

Moving from the social issues to fiscal issues, here’s the next one in line:  “1474. (10-0021), Requires Lender or Other Mortgage Holders, Upon Borrower’s Request, to Convert Adjustable-Rate Loan to Thirty-Year Fixed Rate Loan and Reduce Loan Principal to Property’s Current Fair Market Value. Initiative Statute. Summary Date: 10/14/10 | Circulation Deadline: 03/14/11 | Signatures Required: 433,971: Limits new loan’s value to sum of the property’s current market value, plus amount of certain cash distributions under the first mortgage. Extinguishes borrower’s obligations on prior loans secured by the property. Prohibits reporting loan conversion to consumer credit agencies.”

As a clearing house where the dreams of social conservatives and fiscal liberals – or social liberals and fiscal conservatives – are put on public display, it’s hard to beat California’s “Initiatives and Referenda Cleared for Circulation.” Also still actively filed is number 1472 (10-0019), that “Eliminates the Law Allowing Married Couples to Divorce,” and number 1471 (10-0018) that “Requires Parental Notification Before Terminating Pregnancy of Female Under 18.”

Since there are only six unexpired initiative proposals out there, here are the final two of them, number 1473 (10-0020), that “Prohibits State Retirement Funds from Investing in Companies Engaged in Certain Business Activities in Israel,” and, expiring today, the inflammatory number 1470 (10-0017), that “Imposes New Annual Surcharge and New Annual Tax on All Pension Income Over $40,000. Initiative Statute.” Watch out, pensioners, that one could get legs.

How crazy or fringe these initiatives seem may often depend on whether or not you agree with them. Few of us are likely to scoff at a futile or even extreme initiative proposal if it fulfills some cause in which we fervently believe. Imagine if all of them passed – we could engage in hate speech if we claimed the bible justified it, we could buy overpriced homes and then have our mortgage reduced to the “market value” if the price came down to earth, we would be prohibited from getting divorced, etc. At least there would no longer be a pension crisis… On the other hand, even if enacted, how many of these initiatives could withstand a challenge in court?

Some proposed initiatives sound good, some of them seem absurd or unfair. Here’s one that recently expired that is extremely interesting, number 1469 (10-0016), that “Repeals Environmental Protection Laws and Establishes New Inalienable Rights. Initiative Constitutional Amendment and Statute. Summary Date: 05/14/10 | Circulation Deadline: 10/12/10 | Signatures Required: 694,354. Repeals the California Environmental Quality Act, the California Coastal Act, the California Endangered Species Act, and the California Global Warming Solutions Act. Establishes new inalienable rights to produce, use, and consume air, carbon dioxide, water, habitat for humanity and energy generating natural resources. Grants the people of California the right to nullify all federal powers not delegated to the United States by the federal constitution.”

Here’s another recently expired initiative that attempts to rein in the environmentalist lawsuit industry, number 1464 (10-0008), that “Precludes Anyone Other than State Attorney General from Bringing a Lawsuit Challenging Sufficiency of Environmental Impact Report. Initiative Statute. Summary Date: 03/26/10 | Circulation Deadline: 08/23/10 | Signatures Required: 433,971. Changes California law to preclude any person, city, county, or other entity, other than the state Attorney General, from bringing a lawsuit that alleges that an environmental impact report does not comply with the California Environmental Quality Act because it fails to identify ways to minimize significant environmental effects, fails to offer alternatives to the proposed project, or fails to satisfy other legal requirements. Summary of estimate by Legislative Analyst and Director of Finance of fiscal impact on state and local government: Potential additional net costs for DOJ from increased CEQA litigation workload, likely not more than the low millions of dollars annually. Potentially significant savings or costs for state and local government litigation defense in CEQA cases. Unknown, but likely positive, net impact on state and local government revenues from increased economic activity.”

You have to love the legislative analyst’s take on the fiscal impact of that one, “Unknown, but likely positive, net impact on state and local government revenues from increased economic activity.”

It’s interesting to wonder what motivates filing some of these initiatives. There isn’t another regularly scheduled statewide election until 2012. Some of these recently expired initiatives were, presumably, attempts to make it onto last week’s ballot. But most of the ones filed in late October, for example, are pretty much guaranteed to never make it onto any ballot. They are just political statements, surfacing for 150 days, and nearly always receding into oblivion, on one of the most intriguing soapboxes ever conceived.

There is perennial talk of banning citizen’s initiatives, with claims they have made California “ungovernable.” This would be a tragic mistake. What has made California ungovernable is the fact that California’s government employees have been allowed to unionize. This has created a special interest, public employee unions, of unprecedented power and uniquely corrupt. They have pursued an agenda of more laws and regulations and unsustainable compensation for an ever-expanding unionized government workforce. They have either co-opted or intimidated most of California’s business community, they work closely with the environmentalist extremists, and they have used their massive and ill-gotten financial wealth to turn our elections into travesties (ref. Public Sector Unions and Political Spending). Yet someday, perhaps someday soon, the enslaved citizens of California will rise up against their public sector union overlords and eviscerate their power before we have an economic collapse, and the citizens initiative is the last, best, and only mechanism left to accomplish this.

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