LIANE HANSEN, host:

For nearly a century, voters in California have used ballot initiatives and recalls to keep a balance on the state government's power. But some say that's only made it harder for elected officials to do their jobs and gain the voters' trust.

NPR's Ina Jaffe reports.

INA JAFFE: In October of 1911, the New York Times noted that California voters were likely to pass several, quote, "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 Wal-Mart.

Mr. DARRYL SCHOOL: How's it going, ladies? Are you registered voters in San Jacinto?

JAFFE: Darryl Scholl is sitting at a table with stacks of petitions outside the Wal-Mart superstore in San Jacinto, about 100 miles southeast of L.A. The town has just five city council members and four have been indicted for laundering campaign money, bribery and other charges. There's now a campaign to recall them. Jennifer Mendoza adds her signature to the petition. So sad, she sighs.

Mr. JENNIFER MENDOZA: They start off with good hearts and they end up getting greedy and they forget what the people really want because they're becoming self-serving, financially speaking.

JAFFE: The corruption of public officials was the main reason that the initiative and the recall became part of the California Constitution back in 1911.

Professor SHERRY BEBITCH JEFFE (Public Policy, University of Southern California): Because they were in the thrall of big business, of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

JAFFE: Says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, who teaches public policy at the University of Southern California.

Prof. BEBITCH JEFFE: 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.

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

Mr. JOEL FOX: Prop 13 started something new in people power.

JAFFE: That's Joel Fox, who for many years ran the anti-tax organization that grew out of Prop 13. The initiative, says Fox, made voters realize the power they held.

Mr. FOX: 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.

JAFFE: In fact, since then, voters have 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've set strict term limits for state legislators. They've also told those lawmakers what to tax and how to spend the money. As a result, lawmakers are handcuffed, says Robert Hertzberg, a former speaker of the state assembly.

Mr. ROBERT HERTZBERG (Former Speaker, California State Assembly): More than half the budget is tied up with respect to education. 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.

JAFFE: Hertzberg says it's part of the reason that the California legislature has approval ratings in the single digits, and it's the reason why he's now heading an organization called California Forward. They have proposals for reforming term limits, for example, and the budget process.

Mr. HERTZBERG: If the legislature will put them on the ballot, fantastic. If they won't, we'll keep pushing it.

JAFFE: And get it on the ballot as a citizens' initiative. Either way it's California voters who will once again have the final word.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

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