California's long-running love affair with "direct democracy
" will be tested in the November election as entrepreneurs and interest groups seek voter approval of nine initiatives, two of which have national implications.
would suspend California's unique global warming law, which seeks to cut the state's greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. The eyes of the world are on this proposal, says former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, as oil-producing nations wait to see if the United States is serious about developing alternative sources of energy and reducing dependence on foreign oil. Shultz heads a group opposing the initiative.
Proposition 19 would legalize marijuana
and allow Californians to grow their own supplies of the drug. It is widely opposed by most law enforcement agencies. Late last week Attorney General Eric Holder said that the federal government, which has tacitly permitted medical marijuana clinics in the state that were approved by a 1996 initiative, would move vigorously to enforce federal law and attempt to block Prop. 19 if it passes.
Both of these measures have led for much of the year. But this week a poll by the respected Public Policy Institute of California
, noted for its large survey samples, found both measures trailing as Election Day nears. The marijuana initiative, still close, trailed 44-49 percent among likely voters. Prop. 23, narrowly ahead in a PPIC poll a month ago, now lags with 37 percent of likely voters supporting it and 48 percent opposed.
Prop. 23's shift in fortunes is a testament to the power of California's environmental lobby, particularly when allied as it is in this case with well-heeled Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who stand to benefit from alternative technologies. Prop. 23 is largely bankrolled by two Texas oil companies, who have contributed most of the $9 million that is being spent to pass it. The sponsors claim that California's 2006 Global Warming Solutions Act, much praised as the wave of the future when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed it into law, is costing California jobs because of the environmental restrictions it imposes. Prop. 23 would suspend the law until California's jobless rate, now over 12 percent, fell to 5.5 percent for a full year, a rare occurrence in this state.
More than any other ballot measure in the nation, this issue has galvanized conservation groups. Together with their Silicon Valley allies, and a few strategically placed Hollywood moguls, they have raised $26.7 million to defeat Prop. 23, receiving in the last week alone $3 million from the National Wildlife Foundation and $1 million apiece from "Avatar" director James Cameron
and from Intel co-founder Gordon Moore. The pro-environmental forces were also given a valuable chit by the California Air Resources Board
, which released a 103-page report last spring concluding that the 2006 law signed by the governor will not harm the state's economy.
California's global warming law has taken on outsize importance in the wake of Congress' failure to pass -- or even seriously debate -- legislation that would cap gashouse emissions. As home to nearly one in eight Americans and with a budget that is larger than all but seven countries in world, California has now become the principal national incubator for alternative energy technologies that might reduce U.S. dependence on imported oil.
The issue has also played a role in the closely contested race for governor
, in which Democrat Jerry Brown
holds a slight but steady lead over Republican Meg Whitman
. Brown has strongly opposed Prop. 23. Whitman has attempted to dodge the issue, annoying both sides. Without committing herself on Prop. 23, Whitman says she favors a year's moratorium on the global warming law. Brown maintains that any interruption of alternative energy programs would be harmful.
The state's organized business community, represented by the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Business Roundtable, has maintained neutrality on Prop. 23 because they have members on both sides of the issue. The absence of a strong California business voice for Prop. 23 has left its Texas sponsors on the defensive in what has become an uphill battle.
"There is a feeling that Prop. 23 goes too far," says William Hauck, president of the California Business Roundtable. "A more modest proposal to delay implementation of the global warming law for a few years might have attracted more support." One Sacramento lobbyist, speaking anonymously, offered a blunter assessment. He said the global warming law went "a bridge too far" but that Prop. 23 "would blow up the bridge."
As for the marijuana initiative, it is facing increasing criticism
from health groups because it provides no funds to treat marijuana addiction and from law enforcement because it leaves decisions on how to regulate the drug commercially up to the state's 478 cities and 58 counties. Steve Cooley
, the Republican nominee for attorney general, said it would be an enforcement "nightmare." But supporters say Prop. 19 would provide needed revenue for hard-pressed local governments, some of which are on the edge of bankruptcy.
Another California ballot measure could have an impact on whether the state continues to be dysfunctional in dealing with its fiscal affairs. Proposition 25 would allow passage of a budget by a simple majority instead of a two-thirds vote. California is one of only three states that require a two-thirds majority for a budget and the only state requiring this margin for both a budget and a tax increase. The measure leads narrowly in the latest PPIC poll.
Some analysts trace the Legislature's dysfunction to the partisanship produced by gerrymandered districts that protect incumbents of both parties. Since most districts are drawn to be overwhelmingly Democrat or Republican, candidates normally appeal only to their base voters. This has reduced the number of centrists in the Legislature. Four years ago voters approved a measure to take redistricting from legislators and place it in the hands of a non-partisan commission. The commission is scheduled to do the 2011 redistricting based on the 2010 census, but legislators have other ideas. They are backing Proposition 27, which would disband the commission before it begins its work. Another measure, Proposition 20, would extend the commission's powers to congressional redistricting. (PPIC did not poll on these measures.)
Ballot initiatives have been a staple of California politics
for a century since the concept was introduced by the Progressive leader Hiram Johnson as part of a package of reforms aimed at giving the people more say in their government. California then had a population of slightly more than 2 million people, compared to more than 37 million today. Over the years it became so expensive to qualify measures for the ballot that the initiative became a favored tool of well-financed interests and industries, rather than the recourse for ordinary citizens that it was intended to be. But Californians still prefer the initiative to their elected leaders. In the latest PPIC Poll, 55 percent of Californians said they thought the initiative process worked better than the governor and the Legislature and only 30 percent said it worked worse. In contrast, Gov. Schwarzenegger had an approval rating of 29 percent and the Legislature an approval rating of only 10 percent.