Too Much Direct Democracy?

California voters face a dizzying array of 12 state initiatives this November in addition to regional and local measures that may be on the ballot.  The state initiatives cover a wide-range of issues from energy policy to animal confinement to criminal sentencing.  These and the other issues on the ballot are complex and would affect California's environment, quality of life and fiscal health.  According to polls by the Public Policy Institute of California, Californians value their ability to make state policy at the ballot box partly because they don't think very highly of their representatives in Sacramento.  However, many of us who work in the capital city see that all of this direct democracy actually compounds the state's problems by locking in spending formulas and poorly written laws along with many unintended, negative consequences. 


California is the only state that does not allow the Legislature or initiative proponents to repeal or amend a ballot measure, so once passed; an initiative can only be changed by another vote of the people.  Because there is so little chance to change an initiative, some that do pass are eventually tossed out by the courts.  Only 24 states allow voter initiatives in the first place and 11 of those limit measures that impact the state budget.  The Initiative and Referendum Institute has a map of initiative states.    


The November ballot has two examples of initiatives that seem reasonable at first glance but would actually run counter to their stated goals.  Prop 7 says it's about increasing renewable energy but would put the brakes on renewable energy development in California.  Read more from Craig Noble about why NRDC and every major environmental organization recommend voting NO on Prop 7. 


Prop 10 is another measure that claims to be about renewable energy but is about promoting one fuel, natural gas.  NRDC strongly supports policies that bring about a clean energy economy and reduce our dependence on oil, but Prop 10 would provide enormous subsidies, in the form of a $5 billion bond, to natural gas while leaving behind other options that are more efficient and pollute less.  Focusing on one fuel over other solutions unnecessarily adds more pressure to drill and is a poor investment.  Leading environmental and consumer groups, as well as the state's major newspapers join NRDC in opposing Prop 10.


But before you start thinking of voting NO on all state initiatives this November, there is one that would help California's environment and give us a world class passenger rail system.  Prop 1A would provide bond funding to build a high-speed rail line that will allow people to travel from Los Angeles to the Bay Area in about 2 ½ hours.  California's population is growing and is expected to reach 50 million by 2030.  And since cars and light trucks create a lot of greenhouse gas emissions, replacing car and plane trips with electrified train travel is a key part of the solution to global warming.  Prop 1A will help our economy too by creating hundreds of thousands of green-collar jobs in the construction and operation of the system.   


California's initiative process could use some tweaks.  Limiting the number of measures on each ballot might be a good start!  But for the coming election Californians need to decide how to vote on the 12 measures before them.  More on the three I've mentioned can be found on NRDC's website.