California ballot proposition roundup

The June election has passed, and California can now look ahead to the general election in November, where more contentious ballot initiatives and competitive races for Governor and US Senate are sure to dominate the news. Before proceeding, however, it may be instructive to more closely analyze the results of California’s ballot initiatives for a preview of coming trends.

As my fellow contributor Greg Lucas notes, this was an especially unforgiving election for ballot initiatives, with only the barely mentioned Proposition 13 and the odds-defying, CAIVP-sponsored Proposition 14 passing the ballot box. Others might see these as isolated incidents of voters preferring the merits of two unrelated bills; taken together, however, the results are much more systematic than that.

To see this, one has only to look at the propositions that lost. Proposition 15, an election-reform bill that would have provided for public funding of elections using fees assessed from lobbyists, lost by an unforgiving 15 point margin. Proposition 16, the controversial utilities funding bill that pitted anti-government rhetoric against anti-corporate opposition, went down by 5 points. Proposition 17, which offered incentives for continuous auto insurance coverage, also failed.

Two of these three measures were explicitly tied to corporate entities (Pacific Gas and Electric, and the Mercury General Corporation); the third may have had the opposite effect of Proposition 14 insofar as it expanded the range of potential candidates for general elections. It is not difficult to see this as symptomatic of a trend – more and more, voters are coming to mistrust direct democracy, and see corporate power and partisanship as the roots of its systematic unreliability.

The roots of this mistrust seem obvious: Californians have been mired in a budget crisis caused primarily by excessive spending – spending that has been spurred by the ballot initiative process and what many voters see (rightly or wrongly) as the moneyed interests that abuse it.  The legislature has also made itself look increasingly unable to accomplish goals due to its sharp divisions, which necessitate overwhelming power for particular parties, in order for the budgetary agenda to be satisfactorily set.

And what of the bills that passed?

Proposition 14 has already been addressed by Mr. Lucas, but what about the forgotten Proposition 13, which carries the effect of preventing properties with seismic retrofitting from being reassessed? Here a common refrain returns in California politics – the suspicion that the government is cheating citizens out of their safety and money.

Moreover, the implications of these two passages are substantial for the future, as are those of their rejected cousins. For instance, Proposition 14, which was opposed en masse by both parties, sends the message that the voting this November will scarcely be lockstep – in fact, partisanship may be a losing game in California this year.

Naturally, the initiatives themselves will not have a chance to work their full effect for some time – in Proposition 14’s case, not until 2012 – but the message they send will give voters and politicians alike great cause for concern and/or jubilation come November.