California is one of roughly half of U.S. states that has a representative democracy as a form of governing—such as the governor, members of the legislature, and other state officials we vote for—and also a direct democracy—such as the initiative process in which, for example, we can amend the California Constitution directly by vote. The initiative process traces its roots to the early 1900s, a time in the Golden State when the Southern Pacific Railroad wielded immense, corrupt power in Sacramento. To counter this, Progressive Era reformers such as Dr. John Randolph Haynes and Gov. Hiram Johnson championed the initiative, referendum, and recall processes, and the State of California instituted these three aspects of direct democracy in 1911.
The initiative process was, at the time, a monumental populist victory. The people now had the power to tame via direct vote the well-funded corporate giants that controlled the state.
Each general election, as I vote on various propositions, I think to myself that Haynes and Johnson must be rolling over in their graves when they see what the initiative process has become. What was once a bottom-up model to take on greedy corporate elites is now a top-down model in which well-funded special interests attempt to use the process for their benefit.
Many statewide propositions on this year’s ballot are there based on support from major groups that seek to profit. The Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians, Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, and others have spent millions in an attempt to persuade us to allow sports betting in tribal casinos (Proposition 26). Meanwhile, BetMGM, FanDuel, and DraftKings are spending extreme amounts of cash in hopes that we will allow sports betting on our phones (Proposition 27).
Poll 100 people in your neighborhood and ask them what the most pressing issues facing California are. My guess is that none would say kidney dialysis reform. Yet, here we are again. In the case of Proposition 29, SEIU United Healthcare Workers West is spending millions to try to change dialysis clinic rules. Profitable dialysis companies such a DaVita are fighting back by spending significant amounts of cash to maintain the status quo.
Then there is Proposition 30, an initiative that Lyft has spent heavily on to try to enforce a tax on California’s wealthiest to support clean-air programs. Opponents argue that this is Lyft’s attempt to have taxpayers foot the bill for money that Lyft should spend to abide by our state’s forthcoming electric vehicle mandates for rideshare services.
In his January 3, 1911, inaugural address, Hiram Johnson stated, “And while I do not by any means believe the initiative, the referendum, and the recall are the panacea for all our political ills, yet they do give to the electorate the power of action when desired, and they do place in the hands of the people the means by which they may protect themselves.”
Are initiatives that intend to line the pockets of casinos or gambling app companies what Johnson had in mind when he championed a process that he felt would protect the people?
State Sen. Dave Min put it best in an October 13, 2022, tweet: “Often, these ballot propositions are proposed by well-funded interest groups who couldn’t convince a majority of the legislature to support their cause. They spend tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars on political advertising that is often very misleading.” Min added, “We as voters are expected to make momentous decisions that might be worth billions of dollars to certain groups or industries, based on a short blurb in our voter guide and of course the political ads funded by interest groups.” I encourage you to read Min’s entire thread here.
Propositions are one of many components of our government at which we need to take a fresh look. Here is another example: Why do we need a lieutenant governor? The need for this position was perhaps warranted in the 1800s, but we have technology that allows for our governor to work remotely when out of state today. Some states do not have a lieutenant governor, with the secretary of state or president of the senate serving as second in the line of gubernatorial succession. It is also odd that the governor and lieutenant governor do not run as a slate in California, which means that there is no guarantee that the two will work together. In 1979, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown had to undo a Court of Appeal appointment that Republican Lt. Gov. Mike Curb made when Brown was out of state and Curb was acting governor.
Additionally, we are the only state that publicly elects a tax board: the Board of Equalization (BOE). Why do we need a BOE if we have a Franchise Tax Board? California established the BOE in 1879 to ensure that property tax assessments were equal in all the state’s counties, and the board’s authority grew over time. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004 tried unsuccessfully to merge the BOE with other agencies, and Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017 stripped the BOE of many of its powers. The San Francisco Chronicle Editorial Board in 2018 and again this year called for the abolishment of the board. This is an excerpt of an October 10, 2022, Chronicle editorial:
“The board’s ostensive function remains to adjudicate and hear appeals. But it handles only 20 to 30 of those per year, with the majority of those processed by staff members. The elected board hears only three or four cases and spends most of its time holding obligatory monthly hearings as required by statute.
“Even though board members were stripped of most of their duties and 96% of their staff, the diminished workload did not reduce elected board members’ salaries—each of whom takes home $163,917 of your tax dollars annually, the same as California’s secretary of state.”
The Golden State still operates under norms set forth in the 1800s and early 1900s. We need to explore reform.
Michael A. (Mike) Moodian is a senior lecturer of leadership studies at Chapman University and codirector of the Orange County Annual Survey. Contact Mike via email at drmike[at]moodian.com and follow him on Twitter (@mikemoodian).
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