Byron Williams: Voters have had a major hand in creating dysfunctional government


On June 5, a key culprit to California’s chronic dysfunction will again be allowed, unencumbered, to add to the state’s woes.

Who is this perpetrator responsible for gridlock and institutionalized deficits? That’s right, it’s we the voters.

For all our bemoaning the lawmakers in Sacramento, whose approval rating is slightly above Satan, we have institutionalized the dysfunction we claim to abhor by using the tool we commonly view as the savior to our democracy — the initiative process.

Assuming the past is any barometer, in next week’s primary fewer than 50 percent of the voting-age population will cast votes on propositions that will direct California’s future. Those voters will do so based on a few scant sentences in the voter guide or hyperbolic commercials without any consideration of the unintended consequences.

In many cases, the initiatives not only have not solved the problems they were intended to solve, but have made things worse.

When we passed the Three Strikes Law, did we factor the massive prison overcrowding? What about term limits? Did we factor the institutional memory, key to creating legislation, would move from the elected Legislature to the unelected staff and lobbyists?

The Economist opined last year: "Many initiatives have either limited taxes or mandated spending, making it even harder to balance the budget. Some are so ill-thought-out that they achieve the opposite of their intent: for all its small-government pretensions, Proposition 13 ended up centralizing California’s finances, shifting them from local to state government. Rather than being the curb on elites that they were supposed to be, ballot initiatives have become a tool of special interests, with lobbyists and extremists bankrolling laws that are often bewildering in their complexity and obscure in their ramifications." 

Californians have used the initiative process to create laws and to amend the state constitution. Since the state embraced the initiative process 101 years ago, we have adopted 115 initiatives, including 64 laws and 42 constitutional amendments.

Moreover, initiatives require only a simple majority of the vote to pass new laws or amend the constitution. It presents a low threshold that places laws in perpetuity offering little recourse to address the unintended consequences of the legislation passed — a process that has locked in between 70 to 90 percent of the state’s general fund.

I suspect that we are more likely to see the problem manifest in the issues we oppose and view issues we support as the exception. Do we have the capacity to oppose even those initiatives we support to put back some much-needed balance to our system?

Each initiative that passes going forward, no matter how noble the cause, merely aids and abets the current dysfunction.

More than passing new initiatives, the current system is in desperate need of reform. How long can we go on adding laws with virtually no accountability? Do we have the maturity to put our sacred cows on the table to resurrect the state from its largely self-induced financial quagmire?

We can’t continue to vote issues into perpetuity. The California that existed in 1978 when Proposition 13 was enacted is not the same state today.

As lawmakers seek to balance the budget in 2012, the shadow of Proposition 13 will loom large dictating what’s possible. How’s that working for us? Have there been initiatives that improved the state? Yes. But the exception can’t serve as the rule. It is the rule, in its present form, that’s contributing to the state’s demise.

For as much as we like direct democracy, when we peel back the petition drives, focus-group-tested language and millions of dollars in campaign propaganda, doesn’t the initiative process ultimately serve as an excuse to remain largely an uninformed electorate?

Contact Byron Williams at 510-208-6417 or