Monday, October 27, 2008

no on prop anything

In California we have an initiative process that allows anyone with money and dedication enough to get a law passed. Often there are tables set up outside my local Trader Joes with folk soliciting signatures for some new proposition. I never sign regardless of the subject of the proposition. I would sign one though. I am wishing someone with big bucks and more than a little sense and devotion to the long term health of the state would start an initiative to withdraw the entire initiative process here. I'd cheer on anyone who did the same thing anywhere else that engages in this ridiculous practice of enacting laws by vote.

The argument is that it makes for great democracy. After all, the argument goes, everyone gets a say in the formation of the covenant of the community. The reality is that it does nothing of the sort. Propositions that win are often the ones with the most money behind them. If you can run enough advertisements, you win. It doesn't matter whether the ads are truthful or not. Most of the time the propositions are written by special interests who have little or no ability to write good laws and even with the best of intentions, the unintended consequences are often huge. Just as often, the propositions are attempts to bypass a thoughtful consideration of the issues by the legislature. If you know a thoughtful legislature would never pass your law, write it yourself, run a slick advertising campaign, and voila! You've got a law.

Let me give two examples of poor results - Prop 13 is the poster child. While the intent of many voters was good - to allow elderly folk on fixed incomes to not be forced out of their homes by rising taxes due to rapidly increasing property values. It did that. It also decimated the tax roles of most municipalities and gutted education and other public services. Additionally, it exacerbated the housing crunch in much of California as the burden of taxes are carried only by the most recent of homeowners. Additionally, it caused municipalities to look for other ways to raise revenue or cut costs such as radically increasing fees like building permits and providing limited municipal services to new developments. There are ways to alleviate the strain on fixed income property owners without the radical surgery this proposition involved. But of course, the real intent of the proposition was not to help those on fixed incomes. It was to force local governments to shrink regardless of the costs to their communities.

A second example is seen in the propositions aimed at requiring parental notification of abortions for teens. Twice this has been defeated by the electorate but it is back on the ballot again. A rich man in San Diego keeps funding it and it keeps coming back. This is a very complicated issue and requires great care in constructing legislation. It involves issues of teen pregnancy, abuse, parental rights, women's rights, and probably a host of other issues. The potential results are daunting in either direction. There is no way that the average voter can think through all of the involved questions and certainly there is no way to address them in the voters' materials we receive from the state. Even less can they be adequately addressed in 30 second commercials. They need to be talked out on the floor of the legislature. This time, the proposition may pass as there are a number of other propositions that are receiving much more discussion - notably prop 8 regarding the definition of marriage - so prop 4 is under the radar of most people. They'll likely vote without considering the whole picture. Presumably, if this proposition fails a third time, its proponents will have it on the ballot next time too... and again, and again, and again until somebody runs out of money.

The bottom line is that the initiative process puts the power to make laws in the hands of the people, almost always without adequate consideration of the long term effects of the laws and often without sophisticated understandings of the underlying issues. That is a bad way to make laws.

Yes, it is slower to allow elected officials to make laws and it is more difficult to get change to take place but it is the sensible way to do it. That is, after all, the reason we elect legislators. If you have an issue, elect a champion. If your representatives do not adequately reflect your concerns, vote them out and lobby the new ones.

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