Byron Williams: If California is to survive, the initiative process should be reformed


I engaged a number of readers in opposition to last week’s column to reform California’s initiative process.

Some offered Proposition 13 as the primary reason the current system should remain intact.

Proposition 13 assessed property values at their 1975 value. Moreover, property tax increases on any given property were limited to no more than 2 percent annually as long as the property was not sold.

How many voted for Proposition 13 in 1978 because of the supermajority requirement to raise revenues or the loopholes afforded corporations that allow them to buy property without reassessments, maintaining tax bases at Carter administration levels?

It is the latter two aspects of Proposition 13 that place undue harm on the state.

In 1990, Californians passed Proposition 140, the term-limits initiative primarily to remove Speaker Willie Brown from office. He has been out of the Legislature for 17 years — has the institutional memory that shifted to unelected special interests served as a net plus for the state?

Sensational crimes may have fueled the emotion that led to the passage of the "three-strikes" law in 1994, but now prison overcrowding besieges the state.

One reader bemoaned that unelected judges overruled the will of the people by nullifying his support for Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage.

If democracy is simply majority rule, regardless of the margin, why have a Constitution?


Is the initiative process beyond the parameters of checks and balances?


But it is not the exception that readers cited that’s the problem; it’s the rule.

The reason Gov. Hiram Johnson signed the initiative process into law in 1911 was to minimize the power of the railroad barons. Today, the initiative process has morphed into a cottage industry, financed largely by moneyed interests, serving as the most influential arm of governing. Direct democracy has become the supreme authority in creating legislation, enacting laws into perpetuity without any accountability.

The most important question posed by readers came from an individual who asked: How would you reform the process?

Here are five items for consideration:

1. A two-year moratorium on all initiatives so that a thorough review of the current fiscal impact, which also includes the unintended consequences, could be conducted along with methods that problems could be addressed.

2. All initiatives going forward that affect the general fund must identify how they plan to finance themselves if´╗┐ passed.

3. A much higher threshold must be required, assuming the current system is maintained. You can’t have a supermajority to raise revenues but a simple majority to cut taxes. Nor can you have a simple majority to amend the state constitution.

4. Initiatives can’t exist in perpetuity with no means to correct unintended consequences. I propose that three years after passage of a proposition that analysis of it is conducted and that the Legislature can place any correcting proposals on the ballot.

5. A nonpartisan committee would review each initiative and, after appropriate testimony, provide a comprehensive analysis before the election, similar to what is done in Oregon.

A process that began more than 100 years ago hamstrings California today. It is easy to blame the Legislature, as many have, without examining our collective culpability.

Look at the state’s infrastructure, the systematic decline of higher education, the chronic deficits and the fragile condition of the social safety net. How can we blame the Legislature when we the people have locked up 70 to 90 percent of the state’s general fund?

But reform won’t be easy. Any movement to reform the current system would be met by a strange coalition of political opposites defending the so-called status quo. They all have reasons to protect their sacred cows.

Meanwhile, California is suffocating under that protection.

Contact Byron Williams at 510-208-6417 or