Bulging Number of State Ballot Propositions

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If you're confused enough over the two ballot propositions on the June 5 ballot (cigarette tax and term limits), just wait until November. 

The way things are going, there may be as many as two dozen statewide ballot issues before the voters.

So far, six issues have qualified. They include proposals for an $11 billion water bond, restrictions on political contributions by payroll deductions, eased rules for auto insurance companies to set rates, rejection of the state senate redistricting formula, repeal of the death penalty, and new penalties for human trafficking.

But wait...There are more. Another seven proposed ballot propositions have been submitted for signature verification.

That brings the total to thirteen. And sponsors of about three dozen more are currently in the process of attempting to gather the necessary number of signatures -- 504,760 for a proposed statute or 807,615 for a proposed constitutional amendment.

Of course, a number of those proposals in circulation will fail to gather enough valid signatures in time, but it doesn't take a math genius to see how we easily could approach two dozen proposed ballot issues in November.

Most of these proposals come in the form of initiatives. Their numbers have exploded in recent years, leaving the voters at the mercy of activists and interest groups that spend hundreds of millions of dollars to convince us to vote for or against awkwardly written, and even less understood public policy schemes. 

Consider the pattern over the past fifty years. Between 1960 and 1969, the voters decided 10 initiatives. Over the next decade, the number increased to 24. Between 1980 and 1989, 52 initiatives were presented to the voters, a number slightly higher than the 50 during 2000-2009.

Now here we are in the present decade. In 2010, the voters decided the fate of 10 initiatives, followed by two more next month.

Then, this November, we're likely to see another twenty plus. At this rate, we'll decide the outcome of 100 ballot propositions by the end of the current decade.

Meanwhile, the legislature has been loath to weigh in on the heavy issues that become the focus of these propositions, even though they have the power to do so.

But then again, why should the legislature take on controversial issues like adequate revenues (i.e. taxes) when its members are short-termers anyway? Term limits let them off the hook.

The irony is that two-thirds of all initiatives never become law either because of defeat at the ballot box or decisions by the courts that declare them unconstitutional.

It seems like a lot of work and campaign cost for little return, although the political activists and interest groups at the heart of these battles might feel otherwise.

Meanwhile, the legislature is safely on the side lines, while we grasp for aspirin. Something isn't right. 

Maybe it's time to revisit the initiative process.

Larry Gerston teaches political science at San Jose State University and is the political analyst at NBC Bay Area.

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