How the people can fix California
The deadline to file citizens initiatives for the November 2022 state ballot is this August, and not nearly enough has been done so far. Active measures submitted to the California Attorney General include the highly necessary proposition to “prohibit slavery and involuntary servitude,” along with one to “require earth sustainability training in public schools.” Because apparently we’re still coping with slavery in California, and our public schools are not already inculcating sufficient climate change panic.
Other active measures carry more substance, for example, affecting child custody cases, gambling, and medical negligence lawsuits. But even these, while important, are nibbling around the edges of policy. They will affect the lives of some people, and that may be good or bad, but everyday life in California will not change.
Meanwhile, in a state that once offered hope and opportunity to everyone, most Californians now struggle to survive. The privileged classes – seniors in homes they bought two generations ago, tech workers who learned to code, and the upper strata of public sector employees – exist to serve the elites, a generous handful of billionaires and centi-millionaires. For everyone else, life is tougher every year.
For every essential – homes, rent, tuition, gasoline, electricity – Californians pay the highest prices in America. Californians endure the most hostile business climate in America, and pay the highest taxes. The public schools are failing, crime is soaring, electricity is unreliable, water is rationed, and the mismanaged forests are burning like hell. And all of this can be fixed.
How the People Can Fix California
There is one option available to Californians that can bypass the state legislature, and that is via state ballot initiatives. The legal fees necessary to draft a ballot initiative vary depending on the complexity of the measure, but often run under $10,000. The fee charged by the California Attorney General is $2,000. That’s all it takes to get a state ballot initiative cleared for circulation.
If professional signature gatherers have to be hired, which is typically the case, the cost to gather signatures from voters onto petitions to qualify an initiative to appear on the state ballot is likely to cost over $5.0 million. But that cost must be weighed against the transformative potential of an initiative if it is approved by voters. California permits not only laws, but constitutional amendments to be changed via the initiative process. When you change the California constitution, you change fundamental rules. You not only enact new laws, but you can supersede existing laws that have done harm.
As conditions worsen in California, the arguments against ballot initiatives are increasingly unconvincing. Yes, a campaign to win voter approval of a ballot initiative in a general election can run in the tens of millions. But every two years, 20 senate seats and all 80 assembly seats are up for grabs in the state legislature. And every election cycle, the winning and losing campaigns dump millions into each of the races for these 100 contested seats.
Why bother? The machine is going to stay in control, whether it controls a mega majority in both houses of the state legislature, which it currently does, or a mere supermajority.
And then there are the higher offices. Who can forget Meg Whitman’s hapless 2010 campaign for governor, where she blew through a reported $178 million?
The money is out there. Whitman, along with Steyer, Zuckerberg, Hastings, and dozens of other wealthy Californians have made that abundantly clear. So at a cost of $12,000 apiece, put some options on the table in the form of ballot initiatives. Give the big dogs a bone to carry. They can’t pick it up if you don’t put it out there. Don’t worry about the bad guys emulating this strategy. They don’t have to. They own the machine.
If Meg Whitman had wanted to truly change California, for $178 million she could have sponsored an entire slate of initiative constitutional amendments. If the voters had liked what they were being offered, we would be living in a different and better state today.
New Volunteer Armies Defray Millions in Campaign Costs
Something that proponents of initiatives for November 2022 have available that was not present even two years ago is an awakened, bipartisan army of volunteers who mobilized to qualify the Newsom recall for a special election.
There are now hundreds of trained volunteer managers spread across the state, and thousands of trained volunteer signature gatherers. Their learning curve was steep on the recall, but by the end they had the hardware – booths, tables, signs, petitions, and a thorough understanding of the process. A little known fact is that in the final month before the signature gathering deadline, these volunteers had ramped up to a statewide production of over 100,000 signed recall petitions per week.
This prospect, the ability for trained, motivated volunteers to gather signed initiative petitions at a rate of up to a half-million per month, is a game changer. Skeptics have to consider the fact that the technology available, social media, emails, and websites for communicating and organizing, including the ability for any registered voter to download and print a petition, is only getting more powerful. And now, millions of Californians are aware of how to use this technology. More importantly, more than ever, they are motivated to use it.
The ability to conceive of ballot initiatives, do the legal research, and file them for title and summary, is a task that even small grassroots organizations can afford. The ability to get them on the ballot can be coordinated by multiple armies of signature gathering volunteers if they merely follow two rules, (1) don’t promote more than one ballot initiative on any particular issue, and (2) use identical petition forms and chose one firm to do the preliminary signature verification and manage the deliveries of signed petitions to the 58 county registrars.
Everything else is negotiable. Various grassroots groups competing for donors and volunteers is bound to be a fractious and challenging process. But as long as they aren’t circulating competing petitions, or trying to juggle two different petition processing firms, everything else can be worked out.
Imagine if Meg Whitman had used her considerable resources to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would repeal water rationing, and authorize a water infrastructure bond that would not leave implementation to the California Water Commission, but would instead limit their authority to actually funding specific, named projects: the Sites Reservoir, the Temperance Flat Reservoir, more desalination plants and water recycling plants on the Southern California coast, repair the Friant-Kern canal, and while we’re at it, detox the Salton Sea and turn the Los Angeles River back into a river.
Californians can and will realize that ballot initiatives can improve their lives. Creating water abundance instead of water rationing is just one example. What about a ballot initiative that would require the state to again sell logging rights to commercial timber companies and fast track the permitting process for new lumber mills, and do it in 12 months or less? Suddenly there is revenue to the state, free maintenance of the fire breaks and power line corridors, good union jobs, lower prices for lumber, and fewer fires as the forests are thinned back to healthy densities. What’s not to like, unless you’re a Sierra Club litigator who has gotten filthy rich destroying what once worked so well?
At present, the only transformative initiative that appears to be headed for submittal to the California Attorney General in time for 2022 is a school choice proposition. That’s a commendable effort, guaranteed to put the teachers union into a fight for their lives. But what about something to fix California’s mismanaged water supply and mismanaged forests? What about an initiative to stop in its tracks the burgeoning “anti-racist” racist industry that’s destroying the character of our youth and crippling the competitiveness of our industries? Ward Connerly of the American Civil Rights Institute is working on that, but more people need to offer him their support.
The possibilities are endless and inspiring. What about another try by the proponents of the failed Prop. 20, which would have allowed Californians to take back control of their streets? What about a thoughtfully crafted reform of California’s homeless policies, which to-date have merely poured billions into the pockets of corrupt bureaucrats, powerful “nonprofits,” and construction developers, while making the problem worse?
We are running out of time. Why aren’t establishment Republicans, trade associations, and grassroots leaders working together, right now, to put together a slate of initiatives for November 2022? The filing deadline, late August of this year, is nearly upon us. How many ways will voters have a chance to fix California, before they have to wait another two years?
This article originally appeared on the website of the California Globe.
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Edward Ring is a contributing editor for the California Policy Center.