LOS ANGELES -- Mervin Field and Mark DiCamillo of the California Poll have revealed a significant decline in public support for the initiative process -- the early 20th century reform that gave us California voters the right to pass our own legislation and now threatens to drive us crazy.
In 1979, 83 percent thought statewide ballot propositions were "a good thing." This August, even before the fall bombardment of televised proposition advertisements, that positive rating had declined to 66 percent. I suspect once voters see the new two-volume, 222-page official California Ballot Pamphlet, the biggest ever, the initiative's popularity will suffer another decline.
A few of the initiatives with national news value -- like Proposition 128, Big Green environmental protection, and Propositions 131 and 140, term limits for elected state officials -- were familiar. Like any Californian with a television set, I had also heard about Proposition 134, the "nickel-a-drink" alcohol tax, which has become the target of a long, expensive and vitriolic opposition campaign funded by the liquor industry.
But I was not prepared for the treacherous crosscurrents, the initiatives created solely to kill off other initiatives, the poison pills and hidden costs and unverifiable assertions.
This was not even a record ballot crop. The 28 propositions -- 13 initiatives placed on the ballot by voter petitions and 15 placed by the legislature -- were one fewer than the November 1988 total and far behind the 48 that graced the ballot in 1914. The two pamphlet volumes -- one in black ink for legislative constitutional amendments and initiatives and one in more restful blue ink for legislative statutes and bond acts -- included, for each proposition, a summary and financial analysis, two pages of arguments for and against (the most readable part of the pamphlet by far) and, at the back, the text of each measure.
The pro and con arguments, signed by leading politicians and advocates, were models of the persuasive arts. Capital letters boomed like symphony drums to awaken the bored and inattentive. "California's ANCIENT REDWOOD FORESTS, with giant trees more than 2000 years old, ARE BEING DESTROYED even faster than the tropical rainforests of the Amazon," said the argument for Prop. 130, known as the "Forests Forever" proposition and designed to protect the state's remaining virgin redwoods. The opponents hit the shift key with even more vehemence: "PROPOSITION 130 is simply TOO RADICAL an approach that could COST TAXPAYERS BILLIONS."
Former U.S. surgeon general C. Everett Koop, a bearded, Moses-like authority, was the most quoted expert, being used both to deride Prop. 128 -- "Public policy should be based on sound science, NOT SCARE TACTICS" -- and to buttress Prop. 134: "Who could quarrel with a nickel-a-drink user fee . . . to help save lives?"
But that was the most straightforward part of the package. In the summaries, the state legislative analyst revealed a tortuous web of intrigue: Prop. 135, if passed with a higher vote total, would gut Prop. 128. Prop. 138 would do the same to Prop. 130. Prop. 134 was in hopeless conflict with Prop. 126. Prop. 136 would toughen the requirements for tax initiatives so severely it could kill off parts of 129, 133 and 134.
"The legal effect of these provisions is uncertain," the legislative analyst said wearily. Translation: this was an appeals court lawyer's dream.
As an experiment, I tried absorbing the full texts at the back of the pamphlet. The opponents of Prop. 138 invited voters to "READ THE SMALL PRINT" to verify that the initiative would allow timber companies to mow down "ALL BUT ONE LONELY TREE PER ACRE" of virgin redwoods.
I found nothing like that in the six pages of dizzying legalese. David Edelson, a helpful senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, later directed me to Title Four, Section 5, Section 4582.1 (a) which defines "clearcutting" as "the removal of all trees in a defined area at one time such that after harvest, the removal does not meet the stocking standards of Public Resources Code Section 4561." Unfortunately, Section 4561 is not included in the pamphlet, and Edelson conceded that I probably would not understand it anyway.
Given such difficulties, campaign managers have resorted to commercials and mailers that play a much simpler game. It could be called, "Whom Do You Hate?" It is enough for many people to know that the timber industry supports 138 or the alcohol industry prefers 126. Faced with 222 pages of painful contradictions, voters are likely to fall back on their own comforting biases, or just not bother to vote on the propositions at all.
The California Poll found voters "disliked initiatives because they were too complicated, confusing or misleading, that there were too many on the ballot, too many were sponsored by special interest groups, and that after passage they were too easily overturned by the courts."
But attempts to change the system have won little support. We may not like our spinach, but we don't want to be told we can't buy it.
One measure, Prop. 137, is specifically designed to frustrate efforts to simplify the ballot. It is the work of organizations created by Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann, authors of 1978's landmark tax-cutting Prop. 13. Both men are dead, but they have left a cottage industry in initiative writing, fund-raising, signature-gathering and advertising -- a new career path for young Californians that seems to have no end in sight.