Thursday, June 10th, 2010

The Spread of California’s Governance Disease

My latest post is online at New Geography. It is called “Democracy or Disease?” (not my original title). It’s about how aspects of the California system of governance – particularly the use of constitutional amendments to set public policy and as a substitute for political will and leadership, and the abuse of the initiative process (whether for constitutional changes or other laws) – are increasingly common even in the Heartland. I given examples from Missouri, Indiana, and Ohio. Keep in mind when reading that my concern is not with the particular policies in question, but in the governance mechanisms being used to pursue them. Those are two very distinct matters.

Topics: Public Policy

4 Responses to “The Spread of California’s Governance Disease”

  1. You left out one important reason why policy initiatives are often promoted through consitutional amendment: to impose supermajority requirements for their reversal. This process was so flagrantly abused in Oregon (mainly in the context of Constitutional amendments, passed by initiative, that restrict the ability of legislative bodies–of or the people themselves–to raise taxes) that a separate constitutional amdendment was passed, essentially requiring that any further amendment purporting to impose a supermajority, must be passed by that same supermajority of the voters. (Which has led to at least a few proposed amendments from the anti-tax crowd containing language such as “whatever majority the ballot measure passed by, that’s the majority needed to overturn”).

  2. Congrats to your Blackhawks, BTW… I kinda thought you would be in no condition for blogging today. :)

  3. Quimbob says:

    Thanks for brining up how this tactic is bad for the business climate. Another reason people are so quick to amend constitutions is to bypass the courts when proponents know what they want legislated is unconstitutional (flag burning laws for example).
    When you say “Humane Society” in relation to Ohio, I assume you mean HSUS, a private organization that has no affiliation with virtually any local or state humane society.

  4. Matt Petryni says:

    Aaron, excellent post, as usual. I’d talk more about it on NewGeography, but I have to admit that I find the site to be mostly an outlet for hackery masquerading as intellectual analysis (your fascinating posts are entirely excepted, of course, as are the occasional piece by say, Joel Garreau).

    We’ve had the initiative system running full steam up here in Washington and Oregon for several years now, and while we have nowhere near the problems it’s created in California. This is in part because Washington’s legislature has a quaint habit of regularly ignoring or overruling initiatives when it needs to. For instance, when it needed to raise taxes in the recent budget crisis, it first (by simple majority) removed the initiative-mandated requirement for a supermajority. The supermajority now removed, it then passed a tax increase by simple majority. That’s almost an example of “too much” political will.

    Oregon does this less so, but the state’s way more skeptical about passing an initiative in general. This is especially true of “constitutional amendments,” which often go down simply because they’re constitutional amendments. Nonetheless, the state’s signature land use system was almost destroyed by initiative, only to be reinstated a couple years later (also by initiative), which is probably its most well-known example of initiative dysfunction.

    I think conservatives tend to get behind initiatives in liberal states hoping, like in the case of Prop 13, for some method of restraining a government they know they don’t have the votes to elect and control. It also has the added political benefit of making the liberal government look bad: it’s easy to blame California’s famously Democratic leadership for the state’s horribly dysfunctional budget, though it’s hardly their fault. Or, at least, not entirely their fault. In general, everyone seems to hate the initiative system “on principle,” but rarely in practice. In practice, it’s a political asset.

    I personally think it’s best if the system is used as it was in the early days: sparingly. The problem of a system of checks and balances is that it slowly breaks down when the checks and balances are employed nearly all the time, rather than when they really need to be. We’ve gotten into a habit of this lately, as a country. It’s led to suggestions that “government is broken.” I’m not sure when or how we’ll get out of it.

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