Ballot Initiatives, Recalls: Tools For Irate Calif. Voters

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For nearly a century, voters in California have expressed their displeasure toward the government by means of the initiative and the recall. But some say that has only made it harder for elected officials to do their jobs and gain the voters' trust.

The New York Times noted in October 1911 that California voters were likely to pass several "radical" amendments to the state Constitution: the initiative, the recall and women's suffrage. Well, women voting is no longer considered radical. And in California, the initiative and the recall are so common you can find them at Walmart.

Indicted Officials

Darryl Scholl sat at a table with stacks of petitions outside the Walmart superstore in San Jacinto, about 100 miles southeast of Los Angeles. The town has five City Council members, four of whom have been indicted for laundering campaign money, bribery and other charges. There's now a campaign to recall them.

"They start off with good hearts and they end up getting greedy," said Jennifer Mendoza, who added her signature to the petitions. "They forget what the people really want because they're becoming self-serving — financially speaking."

The corruption of public officials in the thrall of Southern Pacific Railroad was the main reason that the initiative and recall became part of California's Constitution in 1911.

"It's always been a part of the political DNA of California that we want to participate in democracy and we don't trust those special interests up there in Sacramento to respond to what citizens need," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, who teaches public policy at the University of Southern California.

The clearest case of that was Proposition 13, the so-called property tax revolt, of 1978. When the legislature failed to put the breaks on skyrocketing property taxes, the voters did.

"Prop 13 started something new in people power," said Joel Fox, who for many years ran the anti-tax organization that grew out of Proposition 13. The initiative, Fox says, made voters realize the power they held.

"It's not just the conservatives or not just the liberals, it's everybody who wants to use this process to try to promote their agendas," he said.


Voters have since then used the ballot to weigh in on just about everything from car insurance to medical marijuana to the way chickens are raised. But government itself remains a target. California voters have recalled a governor, Gray Davis, and replaced him with Arnold Schwarzenegger. They have set strict term limits for state legislators and told those lawmakers what to tax and how to spend the money. As a result, said former State Assembly Speaker Robert Herztberg, lawmakers are handcuffed.

"More than half the budget is tied up with respect to education," he says. "Propositions dealing with certain kinds of spending on public safety, others that deal with the local government and trying to protect their dollars. It's really just difficult."

Hertzberg says it's part of the reason the California Legislature has approval ratings in the single digits, and the reason why he's now heading an organization called California Forward, which has proposals to reform term limits, for example, and the budget process.

"If the Legislature will put them on the ballot, fantastic. if they won't, we'll keep pushing it," he says, and get it on the ballot as a citizens' initiative.

Either way it's California voters who will once again have the final word.



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